GIVEN Partick Thistle’s reputation for playing pleasing, but often punchless, football last season, it’s easy to understand why Alan Archibald was so keen to sign Ryan Stevenson. The heavily tattooed former Hearts player offers aggression, versatility, leadership and goals – all of which made his appearance in a shocking pink strip yesterday slightly incongruous.
More of that later, but if Stevenson doesn’t hide his affection for Hearts, he believes he has made a good move along the M8. Thistle came in for him last January and, despite being rebuffed, renewed their approach when it became apparent that Stevenson wasn’t going to be a cornerstone of the new Hearts regime under Ann Budge and Craig Levein.
The attacking midfielder, who has signed a two-year contact at Firhill, will be 30 next month and he expects the latest stage of his career to be a productive one. Thistle survived their first season back in the top flight last season, partly due to the ineptness of Hibs and Hearts’ financial woes, and now Stevenson expects the Glasgow side to kick on in the new campaign.
“Everybody knows about second season syndrome and we want to stay away from that,” he points out. “With the players we’ve got here there’s no reason why we can’t be in the top six and push even higher. I didn’t come here for a relegation battle. I’ve sampled playing in Europe with Hearts and it’s unique. Hearts were expected to be in Europe, but you look at St Johnstone and Motherwell, who have also been getting there consistently. That’s where you want to be – an established SPFL team and eventually getting into Europe.”
It is, as Stevenson concedes, going to be a highly unusual – and most would say unsatisfactory – top flight without the two Edinburgh clubs and Rangers. “Apart from Celtic, and Aberdeen who have put a good squad together, there’s not much between the rest of us,” he points out.
“Partick are moving in the right direction, and are bigger than some of the other clubs in the league. With Rangers, Hearts and Hibs being out of it, that opens the door for us.”
Stevenson has been around long enough to know that there will be more attention on the Championship some weeks than the top league itself. “Obviously there are three big hitters in it and only two can come up,” he says. “Other teams could be involved as well. I’ve played in that division and I know how hard it is to get out of it.”
Even so, Stevenson believes Hearts can win promotion at the first attempt. “The boys at the club learned under difficult circumstances last season and you could see near the end they had come on leaps and bounds,” he points out.
“Hearts have sold 11,000 season tickets and I think it will probably go up again, which is incredible. I genuinely think with the backing of the fans, which is the biggest thing, the team will be in with a real shout and will probably come back up again.”
Stevenson sees no let-up in his role as a player with extra responsibility, even although he has switched clubs. “I’ve had it for the last couple of years at Hearts and I don’t see it ever really leaving me now,” he points out. “I’m getting older and if I can pass on experience to the other boys here I will do that – as they will to me.”
The midfielder will play his first game on Scottish soil for Thistle in a friendly at Dumbarton tomorrow, but his debut league appearance has been put back for four days because the scheduled curtain raiser against Celtic has been postponed due to the ground being used for the Commonwealth Games. And the vivid pink strip? It’s for the very best reasons, as Thistle have a tie-in with Breast Cancer Care Scotland. The charity will receive £3 every time one of the away strips is sold.