WHEN Ryan Stevenson describes retaining Gary Locke as manager ahead of next season as a “no brainer” he is surely articulating how the majority of Hearts fans must now feel.
He makes it clear that sentimentality does not cloud his vision. Stevenson knows as well as anyone that the second tier, where Hearts will play their football next season, needs to be treated with respect, so they need both a manager of worth and someone who has the support of the players.
According to Stevenson, Locke is that man. In addition, Stevenson has called on prospective new owner Ann Budge – whose takeover has yet to be finalised – to make a quick call about Locke’s future to avoid a scenario where the players are once again heading away for the summer while their futures remain uncertain.
“For me it is a no brainer,” he said yesterday. “Regardless of what I think of him [Locke] personally, as a coach and a manager he has done wonders this year. Bringing on the young boys has been a test in itself. He has had to be hard on them at the right times and he has had to put an arm round them at the right times. He and Billy [Brown] have done that brilliantly this year.
“Once the new owner comes in it would be great to see him make his own signings and put his own stamp on the team. And hopefully we can push on next year and come straight back up.”
Stevenson was asked whether it would feel like a novel experience for the players to go away for the summer knowing where their own futures lie. For that to happen, Locke will need to be handed the responsibility to make the decisions – or if not Locke, then someone else.
“I said that to the manager last week, since I came here I can’t remember a summer where I have not been on tenterhooks, checking my phone to see what is happening,” said Stevenson.
“Last year I was sitting on holiday when the message came through that we were in administration. So it would be fitting if we could finish the season strongly and then the manager can go away knowing he is going to be here next season and we know he’s going to be here.
“Because I think you can see that every single player is vouching for him and Billy, they have been brilliant this season. So hopefully Mrs Budge can come in and we can have a good summer and he can build. And we can go into the Championship and not just look to finish second but win the league.”
Stevenson re-found his scoring touch in front of the home supporters on Sunday when hitting a first-half hat-trick in the 5-0 win over Kilmarnock. These were the former Ayr United player’s first goals at Tynecastle this season. For someone who was present at Somerset Park the previous day supporting Ayr against East Fife, it was particularly sweet to score three times against his former club’s fierce rivals – who had beaten Hearts three times this season. Not only this, but it was Stevenson’s first hat-trick of his career.
“That probably ranks as my best moments because being an Ayr United supporter, I have taken a bit of stick down the years from the Kilmarnock fans,” he said.
“So it was nice to get three goals. I also hadn’t scored at Tynecastle this year so that was in the back of my mind as I didn’t want to go a whole season without scoring here. So it was a nice day for me personally and a great team performance.”
Stevenson described the quality of the Championship next year as putting a “silver lining” on the disappointment at being relegated from the top flight.
“Dunfermline look like they are favourites to come up through the play-offs so having them there as well means it is going to be a good league,” he said. “I have not played against Rangers for a couple of seasons but they are a great club and it is good to go and play at Ibrox so we’ll look forward to that. But we are under no illusions, I have been in those divisions and I know how hard they are to get out of. It’s not going to be as easy as everyone thinks with Rangers and Hearts first and second.
“There will be hard away days and hard games here at home. So it is going to be a hard league. But one if the manager can put his stamp on the team and bring in good players we are more than capable of winning.
“I have been there, I know going to places like Dumbarton and Alloa on a Wednesday night isn’t easy,” he added.
“I know first hand, I spent enough years down there to know it is not as easy as turning up. It will be another test for the young boys.
“You kind of ride on the wave in the Premiership of going to big stadiums and playing in the top league. It will be a different sort of atmosphere next season. There are a lot of experienced players down there and a lot of good players too.”
BT Sport Q&A: Rangers | Hibs | Neil Lennon
THIS week’s BT Sport video Q&A looks at whether Rangers fans will buy season tickets and if the club’s supporters will force a change of ownership.
The form of Hibs under Terry Butcher is also examined following the Easter Road side’s derby defeat while the future of Neil Lennon is also considered following the announcement that his assistant Johan Mjallby is to depart at the end of the season.
• Email your Scottish football question for the BT Sport panel to answer. The next show will be recorded on May 7 after St Johnstone v Celtic, which will also be shown live on BT Sport, with the video available on The Scotsman website the following day. You can also tweet us @TheScotsman.
A line-up of experts will handle your questions after each BT Sport game. Most match days, the team includes Darrell Currie, Derek Rae and Gary McAllister.
Over this season, BT Sport will air 30 SPFL matches plus 10 Rangers games from the SPFL League One.
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