Hearts have a winner in iron lion Ryan . .

INNER tenacity and resolve set Ryan Stevenson apart from many of his contemporaries. A hungrier footballer you will not meet.

Having fallen by the wayside after being freed as a Chelsea trainee, Hearts is not quite the last chance saloon for a midfielder aged only 25. But it is certainly a second chance saloon when many players disappear into obscurity upon leaving the first.

Stevenson's effervescence ensures he will maximise the opportunity, granted when Jim Jefferies lured him to Tynecastle from Ayr United in January. His boundless energy and dominance were a prominent feature of Hearts' summer activities as someone clearly grateful for another crack at top-level football. He became a catalyst for the club's two pre-season victories, against Gillingham and Millwall, whilst performing the second striker role with intelligence and guile. It is somewhat frustrating, therefore, that he must now retreat from first-team business.

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An SFA suspension will see Stevenson miss the season-opening encounter with St Johnstone this weekend plus the visit to Hamilton on Saturday week. The consolation is that Jefferies is unlikely to forget about the first signing of his second Hearts tenure. Not when he displayed an ability to dictate matches in such indomitable fashion.

Stevenson contends that he has finally "found his feet" after spending the second half of last season adjusting to full-time football in the SPL. He was Ayr's only full-time player in the First Division and initially found the promotion slightly overwhelming.

He is properly prepared to do himself justice this season and finally showcase his potential on a grand scale. "Sometimes you only get one chance at things. I've been lucky enough to get two bites at it," he said.

"I've been at Chelsea as a young boy and then kind of fell away from it. I had a couple of years at St Johnstone when I fell away. I went to Ayr and worked extremely hard for three years to try and get this move.

"I'm completely focused on the fact that I want to play every week for Hearts. I want to be a good player for Hearts and win things here. That's why I came here. I never really thought I was going to get this move. Now I'm here, I want to do well this season - score goals every week and win something.

"I'm confident enough that, if I do well here, then you never know what could be round the corner. I'm starting to get back to the way I used to play at Ayr, I think I showed it in the second half against Gillingham and against Millwall. That was the old me, the way I used to play. After I came to Hearts in January I struggled, I've admitted that. I struggled through to the end of the season, it was really just about me getting through the games and trying to find my feet.

"The recent games have been me playing the way I want to play. I've been getting the ball and going at players, trying to create chances. I feel a lot sharper and stronger and I'll be ready to go once the suspension is over. It's a massive blow for me that the manager is now shaping the team for the start of the season and I have to drop out. It's disappointing because I'm just getting into the way of things and getting match sharp. I have to stay positive.

"Hopefully, when my suspension is lifted, I'm still in the manager's thoughts. When my ban is lifted I want him to be thinking about me."

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But will Jefferies consider Stevenson as a midfielder or a forward when he is available? "Big Kev (Kyle] will be coming back, David Obua will be coming back so if he wants me to play up front I've got a bit of competition.

"Wherever I play, competition is something I really enjoy. I played as a striker a couple of times with Ayr. I scored a couple of goals and I really liked it. I also did it last season against Dundee United at Tynecastle. I haven't done it that much but I'm thoroughly enjoying it up there. I can go forward as much as I want because I don't need to track back."

Not that he objects to any donkey work. Lung-bursting runs are part of Stevenson's make-up and doubtless one of the initial attractions for Jefferies. "It doesn't necessarily come naturally," laughed the player. "It's always been ingrained in me the fact that, if you work hard, then you'll play better. I always try to work as hard as I can. If you're having a bad day but you're still chasing and closing people down then you're still helping the team.

"The fans pay good money to come and watch us. The least they deserve is me to be giving 110 per cent every week.

"I enjoy playing up front and getting in about centre-backs when they are big and strong.

"Billy Brown, our assistant manager, has spoken to me and said that naturally I will drop into the hole. I think they want me to drift in there, get on the ball and try to make forward passes. I've done that at times in the pre-season games and things have gone really well."

Gradually, the natural ability which prompted a club of Chelsea's stature to sign Stevenson as a teenager is coming through. If at first the SPL was a little daunting, perseverance allied to improved fitness levels is paying off.

"It's a lot to do with confidence after you make the step up like I did, going from part-time to full-time," he explained. "It's a lot to take in. The standard at Ayr compared to Hearts doesn't stand up. I was training with 16-year-old boys every day and playing in the First Division, then I came in and played for Hearts against Celtic on a Tuesday night when I should have been playing against Brechin.

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"I've moved up with my wife from Ayr, which has taken time as well, but I'm starting to find my feet now. Recent games have been more like myself but I've still got miles more to come. I know myself that I can play a lot better and that's what I'm looking to do."

He'll have to wait a couple of weeks, but Ryan Stevenson may just prove to be one of Hearts 'most influential players of the season ahead.

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