Lewis Stevenson: 'I think I'll be quite upset when I have to quit' - Hibs legend opens up on his career
But I’m pretty sure I know who didn’t. Who’s never gone in for fashion statements. Who’s seen flash Harrys and fly-by-nights come and go. Who’s watched starlets fizzle and fade and next big things turn into yesterday’s men. Who’s listened to big shots bellow while he’s kept his own counsel in the corner. Who’s counted them in and counted them out, some being left-backs with designs on his place in the team. Who’s survived 20 managers – including caretakers – and last Saturday was sent on by his 21st for his 550th appearance in green and white.
Lewis Stevenson, who else? The inspiration for the chant: “Da na na na na na, Lewis Stevenson”, which is unflowery as they come, just like him. It’s solid, reliable and repetitive, just like him.
As we sit on a bench, the 4G now deserted, I read out a tweet from his wife Julia: “I may be biased but he is the cutest. That wee smile. In awe of you and everything you do. What a role model for our three.”
Unsurprisingly, it makes this supremely modest footballer blush. Dad to Louie, Luna and Joey, Stevenson avoids social media because of its casual brutality. He occasionally attempts to caution Julia in her enthusiasm for it but to little avail because “she’s the boss”.
Her latest post, though, brought only love his way, with fans lining up to message that they’re “dreading the day” when Stevenson finally hangs up his boots. “That’s nice,” he says, “but it’s going to come and obviously being 34 now I’m at the stage when it’ll be sooner rather than later.
“I can remember when I thought 30 was ancient. As a young boy I’d look at some of the older guys at the club and say to myself: ‘Ach, they’re past it.’ I’d better not say who they were! But I still feel fit and I’m still enjoying my football. We’ve got great sports scientists and nutritionists who’re up-to-the minute with the latest supplements and power routines for my old legs. Maybe 35 is the new 30. Or something … ”
Stevenson is a one-club player. In the modern game of agitating agents and high dugout turnover – increasing the risk that eventually one of the managers coming through the revolving door won’t fancy you – that makes him more than a curio, more than a person of special scientific interest, and in fact an endangered species.
Three Hibees are ahead of him in the great appearance roll-call: Gordon Smith (636), Arthur Duncan (626) and Pat Stanton (617). The Prince of Wingers, Nijinsky, the Quiet Man. Stevenson is the first to admit he gets close to them in number terms only, that they all possessed more flair.
The Prince of Left-Backs doesn’t exist as a category but if it did then for him that would be David Murphy who was the No 3 in Tony Mowbray’s team when Stevenson made his debut. “Murph was unbelievable. His first touch was immaculate and he had a big impact on me. But a ball dropping from high in the sky he could catch on his toe. In 550 games I’ve never been able to do that.”
This is typical Lewie, relentlessly self-effacing almost to the point of parody, and he could rival Stanton for quietness if little else. “Pat’s still around the club which is great. If he’s having a cup of tea with the kitman I’ll listen in to his wonderful stories. But his total is safe. I’m not going to be beating it.”
Still, 550, plus however many cameos from the bench he has left, will amount to some shift as a Hibee and one which probably won’t be repeated. The appreciation currently flowing his way is recognition of this and how, amid all the turmoil and tumult of Easter Road, he’s been a constant. Then he flashes that cute smile: “Of course, there will have been times when the sight of me scuttling up the left wing has had the fans groaning: ‘No’ him again!’ I love them, but that’s what supporters are like.”
Stevenson has, though, achieved something the exalted trio never did: win both domestic cups. Alan Stubbs, who managed Hibs to Scottish Cup glory in 2016, used to say about our man that he was seven-out-of-ten every week. In a team featuring big talents like John McGinn, big characters like Jason Cummings and big reputations such as Anthony Stokes, that might sound like Stevenson was being damned with faint praise. “Aye, I know what you mean,” he says. I’ve never been a nine or even an eight, but every side needs a few sevens in it.
“You know, I would love to have been a maverick guy. A Scotty [Allan] or a Boyler [Martin Boyle] or a Deek [Derek Riordan] or a Boozy [Guillaume Beuzelin] who people pay money to have them leap out of their seats.
“I remember Boozy saying to me that even when I made a nice pass it never looked good. He’s a lovely fellow and didn’t mean anything bad by it and I get him. I’m this wee bloke who jitters about and has never been easy on the eye. Frankly, I wouldn’t pay money to watch Lewis Stevenson!”
He’s a Fifer which may partly explain his innate reticence, blowing one’s own trumpet being in contravention of one of the kingdom’s bylaws. Kirkcaldy-born and under the influence of his Labour-supporting parents, Brian and Lesley, and inspirational modern studies teachers at the Lang Toon’s Balwearie High School, Stevenson was all set to study politics at Dundee University when Hibs offered him a deal.
“That was a total surprise. I’d signed up for uni because realistically I didn’t think I would make it as a player, even if I’d got to full-time. It seemed like too big a dream.” What might he have done with that degree? “Don’t know. Maybe I would have only stuck the course for two years then tried to get a trade. I’m still interested in politics but almost, given recent events, as entertainment.” He’s one half of the Hanlon Stevenson Foundation with Easter Road team-mate Paul which works with charities like Street Soccer to help kids and the socially disadvantaged enjoy the game which has given these two veterans fine and noble careers. “One of the Street Soccer guys says I should think about doing something in politics after I’m finished with football. I’m not sure about that. When you’ve spent a long time in a stressful environment where there can be these harsh criticisms then you might want to try something totally different. Politics can be pretty toxic, just like football.”
That debut came at Ayr United’s Somerset Park in a 2005 League Cup tie. Lining up with him were Beuzelin, Stephen Fletcher, Gary Caldwell, Ivan Sproule and, lest we forget, Humphrey Rudge. “Deek was playing, too, wasn’t he? Up ahead of me on the left. I had a sore head at the end of the game from all his moaning when I didn’t pass the ball to him quick enough or well enough. But he was a top player in a great young team of cocky lads like Broony [Scott Brown] and Thommo [Kevin Thomson]. I was in awe of them.
“They were sound with me but I’m sure they thought: ‘Who’s this quiet, little oddball?’ I was a wee indie kid, a fan of older music such as the Smiths and Joy Division, but I also liked The View who were brand new from Dundee. I reckon I wanted the other guys to think I had this rock ’n’ roll lifestyle but I really didn’t. I was shy, wouldn’t say much, although because I didn’t have a car I do remember if we’d been playing up north walking the length of the team bus to ask the driver if I could be dropped off near the Dunfermline roundabout. That was pretty brazen of me.”
Randomly, we run through that enormous list of managers. Mowbray moved to a bigger club but some left under a cloud and many were sacked. I ask who was his least favourite but he says: “Sorry, you’re not getting a scoop. Really, though, I learned from all of them, even the ones who didn’t do very well like Terry Butcher, even though his style [of football] wasn’t great. It was under Colin Calderwood that we last won five league games in a row [the current team failing to match that at Tannadice on Tuesday].” It was under John Hughes that Stevenson made his fewest starts but insists: “Yogi was great although I seemed to have my boots on the wrong feet and just never took the chances he gave me.”
That was the era, though, of the last league victory at Celtic Park, today’s destination for the Hibees, thanks to goals from Stokes and Danny Galbraith. “I still speak to Danny and he still goes on about his winner. I bet he’ll be hoping for a draw on Saturday so his legend stays intact.”
Stevenson continues: “Paul Heckingbottom was very scientific. Maybe because of that we lost a bit of freedom. But he’s a very modern manager and I’m not surprised he’s doing well at Sheffield United. All the players loved Jack Ross and with him [in 2020-21] we achieved the same as Hearts last season [third place and beaten Scottish Cup finalists] and yet they were able to get European football through to Christmas. I also felt sorry for Pat Fenlon who worked as hard as any other manager here.” Does he think Hibs are especially tough to manage? “There’s a high expectation of attractive football, which is fine, although not always achievable. But of course we as players must take our share of responsibility for the failures.” Footballers shouldn’t ever stop learning, he says, and he continues to do so under Lee Johnson. “He provides so much information, which thankfully he simplifies for us.”
Fenlon presided over the two worst results in recent Easter Road history – Hearts’ 5-1 Scottish Cup final walloping in 2012 and being thrashed 7-0 at home to Malmo in a Europa League qualifier the following year. Says Stevenson with 45 Edinburgh derbies to his name: “I don’t know how we got to that final because we’d just avoided relegation. The thing was Hearts weren’t very good that year either so we thought we had a chance. I still find it difficult to talk about that game. I still can’t find the words to describe what happened.” What of the theory there were too many loan players in the side? “I don’t really agree with that. It was a bit of a convenient excuse. These guys wanted to win the same as the rest of us.
“Malmo was obviously a terrible night though it was in the first leg that they really hammered us and yet only won 2-0. The return wasn’t a 7-0 game but everything they hit went in.” Here speaks a man steeped in Hibee culture whose pride, when battered, means he continues to speak up for the club, even when reflecting on the darkest days. Another example, concerning the relegation season: “From Christmas onwards we kept saying: ‘Just one win and we’ll be okay.’”
But every now and again the darkness cleared. In 2007 John Collins surprisingly selected Stevenson, whose career began in the midfield, for the CIS Cup final against Kilmarnock. “He told me the night before and I wished he hadn’t because I couldn’t get to sleep. Kevin McCann, my room-mate, was almost having to sing me lullabies. But early in the game I got a good pass away and that settled me down. We weren’t great in the first half-time and in the changing-room John pointed to me and said to the others: ‘This boy’s 19, the youngest here, and he’s the only one playing with his chest out.’ He was voted man-of-the-match although insists others were more deserving, among them two-goal Abdessalam Benjelloun.
Stevenson has scored on just nine occasions. He thinks his first goal, at Inverness Caley Thistle, ricocheted off five of their players and such was his surprise he didn’t know how to celebrate. His best hardly anyone saw, lost in the swirling Faroes mist against NSI Runavik.
Once, he sheepishly accepted a player of the year award by remarking that the club had performed so poorly the choice was limited. Typical modesty, I say. He says: “But was it disrespectful?” He really is the very model of a team player.
Then, in 2016, Stevenson and the rest of Stubbs’ team smashed the 114-year Scottish Cup hoodoo. Were the taunts that successive sides had “Hibsed it” on big occasions a motivation? “Perhaps, but that’s exactly what we’d done previously.” That day it was two-goal Stokes who was the hero. “Before every game [assistant manager] John Doolan had shaken him by the arms and said: ‘This is your day, lad. Stokesy, this is your day!’ It never was until that day when he was out of this world.” Stevenson only recently watched the final back. “I lived it, that was good enough for me,” he says, before admitting that being reminded of his self-conscious scuttling had probably put him off before.
So was Stubbs the favourite of his managers? Either him or Neil Lennon who was far and away the most combustible, though he adds: “We played great football under Lenny, probably the best of my time here, and he helped me win a Scotland cap.”
With a name like Lewis Stevenson this guy was probably always going to have a Jekyll and Hyde career. But the end when it comes is going to be emotional. “I think I’ll be quite upset,” he says, doing his best to keep that smile in place.
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