The stories we tell ourselves, and tell our children, define us. Ryan Stevenson’s desire to have the right tale to impart is why walking out the tunnel at Ibrox on Friday night will feel like a redemptive step. It is one the newly-signed Stranraer forward will make, not only to prove himself as a professional footballer again, but also prove to himself he can be the parent he wants to be.
As 2017 progressed, Stevenson became completely “scunnered” and “finished” with his peripatetic 17-year professional football career. It was a period that peaked with two spells with Hearts, and brought profitable stints at hometown club Ayr United and St Johnstone.
In the background, the break-up of his marriage, and subsequent periods of separation from his two boys, left his mind too fragmented to allow him to continue in the game. It engendered a series of hasty decisions that left him without a focus or, as his moods blackened, what seemed like much of a future.
He returned to senior professional football with Stranraer last week. It followed his re-engagment with the game that was helped by all those at Troon Juniors, where he has played for this past year. The return represents a rekindling fuelled by how he wants his sons Carter, seven, and Brady, four, to see their daddy.
A Scottish Cup tie away to Rangers in front of 40,000 under the blazing lights is a footballing occasion Stevenson assumed belonged to his former life. Yet, it was applying the past tense to his eldest’s pronouncement about his father’s job at a recent school function that convinced him he had to re-enter what he had so often experienced as, a “harsh and unstable environment”.
“He was telling everyone ‘oh, my daddy’s a professional footballer’, and I thought ‘daddy used to be a professional footballer’. I didn’t want to live in regret and at 40, 45 be left thinking, I should have at least tried to get back. The kids are the only reason I am doing it. The two of them have got my Hearts strips, my Ayr United strips and my Scotland strip [from being on the bench against Cyprus in 2011], and they run about the house in them. They have my boots from the League Cup final [of 2013, when he scored twice as Hearts lost to St Mirren] and some trophies I kept from being a young kid are in their rooms.
“All I want to do is make them happy and I couldn’t think of anything that would mean more than them standing at the side at Ibrox saying ‘that’s my daddy’. That’s all I want: to be a good daddy, be a good role model and for them to be proud of me.”
Stevenson knows players don’t retire professionally at 32 and make their comeback at 35. He was so completely turned off by football that he didn’t even watch any games, never mind kick a ball, for 15 months. Yet he remains younger than Allan McGregor, a friend from his St Johnstone days, and only a couple of months older than Steven Davis, who will be lining up against him for Rangers this week. More than that, he knows, as his life outside of the game now is settled through his establishment of a small factoring business and relationship with a new partner, he now has the opportunity to play without the head-wrecking circumstances that left him unable to do so.
On the surface he may be an imposing man with a fully-inked gym body. Patently, though, there’s more than just tattooist needles capable of getting under the skin of a character with insecurities. Stevenson’s divorce story, indeed, is a classic study in what often follows family breakdown. “Even if it is a part of life that the dad steps back then, I struggled coming to terms with not being with my kids every day. Footballers have so much free time I could be with them in the morning, then pick them up in the afternoon. I’ve got to grips with it now because I know that my ex-partner is an amazing mum. But I had so many days back then when I’d be sitting in my house alone just wondering how they got on at school that day, what they were doing.
“All that going on behind the scenes and trying to play football – an environment where you are putting yourself in the front line and have to have a thick skin no matter what level you are playing at – left me just breaking down as the situation just got the better of me. I was broken, truly broken. Now I want the boys to see that, yes, I hit the skids, but I put my mind to it and came through, and showed that by hard work, you can get back to where you want to be.
“A game against Rangers isn’t the be-all and end-all in that. I’m back to play for as long as I can, play at the best level I can, and do as much for Stranraer and their fans this season so they stay in League One.”
Stevenson, in the midst of his psychological churn two years ago, thought that the answer was not to stay but to go. After leaving Raith Rovers in March 2017, he failed to settle at Troon despite them pulling out the stops and offering him a job as well as a playing contract. Instead, he accepted an offer from Australian second-tier semi-professional club Peninsula Strikers. But the day he was scheduled to travel, after he had packed up his house and his suitcases and prepared to make his way to the airport, he backed out.
“I was gone, so messed, back then. I was in a bad place as a person, and kinda treating people round about me like shit. And I let the club down, and the manager down. It was just a case that I was making rash, stupid decisions.
“So even though I thought Australia could be an amazing experience in an amazing country, a clean slate as it had been for so many friends, there was the realisation I might have to go two months, three months, without seeing my kids. Back then I was struggling to go four days without seeing them. I couldn’t not have real interaction with them. Every day I have them we will watch a film and cuddle up on the couch. Those are the most precious moments, and you can’t do that on Skype. So I couldn’t go.”
Stevenson is a “great believer in everything happening for a reason” and felt that strongly when he stood on the Tynecastle pitch watching his boy Carter play for Troon Thistle YFC in a half-time match a fortnight ago. “It was such a special, surreal moment, my son playing and me watching on a pitch where I had such great times – I have a tattoo on my back of taking him out as mascot there when Hearts captain in 2013. I would have missed that moment last month if I’d gone to Australia, and never been able to get it back.”
Whatever else has gone on in his life, Stevenson believes he has had more ups than downs. He has enjoyed “brilliant experiences” as a footballer. Never more so than in his two spells with Hearts. That is despite an acrimonious departure in 2012, which meant missing the 2012 Scottish Cup triumph because he refused to play when owner Vladimir Romanov was failing to come clean on salary delays. And his release following a swift return that resulted in a further two-year stint closing with 2014’s top-flight relegation.
“I never wanted to leave that place, and people forget it was my first club, playing with them from the ages of 12 to 14 before I made the mistake of moving down to Chelsea. It was a privilege and an honour to play for that club, and be in the thick of it at Tynecastle every other week. I woke up every day pinching myself at how lucky I was to be at a club where supporting it was the life of so many people. I still love it. I met Jim Jefferies and Billy Brown at the last Rangers game at Tynecastle and both said I was such a good fit for the club. It always felt like that, whatever the turmoil.”
Stevenson believes he has “come a long way” since his darkest days in 2017. Yet he does not want it to appear that he is a self re-made man.
“I am not saying I’ve dragged myself out of the mire. I have family and friends who dragged me out. I have a friend who owns a gym in Ayr and he would drag me down there. He’d text at 11pm at night and say ‘get yourself down here at 6am tomorrow. Come and train with me’. And I had to do that because then I had nothing else in my life in missing my kids and not knowing what I was going to do job-wise.
“There were days when I was sitting in the house thinking ‘where are you going… what are you going to do… how are you going to get out of this?’ I spent so long looking ahead, I never enjoyed life. Two or three years of my life passed me by as I wondered where I was going to be. My new partner I met then, she could have probably walked away from me at the start, but chose to drag me up from the mire. Having broken down going through my divorce, it could seem I dragged myself back up and it’s a glory-story, but it wasn’t like that. Realistically, it was my support structure. The crazy thing is I didn’t even realise that I had one. It is only now I realise what they have actually done for me.
“My mum as much as anyone. She would message me 10 o’clock at night ‘you alright son? I’m worried about you’. And because of the way I was feeling, I maybe wouldn’t message her back until the next morning and so she wouldn’t have slept well that night because she was worried about what I might do. Yet I had no regard for how I was affecting other people. It was only the other week, when I went to a Christmas service with Sarah, and my mum texted her. She said ‘it is the first time in two-and-a-half years I can put my head on the pillow and not wonder what he is going to do, not worry he might do something stupid’.
“Not that it was ever going to come to that, but this is the parent point of view. The horrible thing is thinking that there was me, a grown man in my 30s, causing my mum in her 60s to worry about her son at a time when she should be enjoying her life. That is hard to take.”
Stevenson can draw comfort from the fact that football and life outside it are no longer hardships but to be enjoyed and relished again. That is a story to tell.