Hearts: Ryan Stevenson sure to give derby extra colour

Hearts midfielder ready to bring grit and determination to the Europa League crunch clash . . .

• Ryan Stevenson intends to have some of his many tattoos removed this summer

TATTOOS immediately catch the eye as Ryan Stevenson approaches. They seem to be everywhere. He stands somewhere in between The Prodigy's Keith Flint and David Beckham in the body art stakes.

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If this is evidence of a wild side to the Hearts midfielder, then surviving Easter Road on Saturday won't be a problem. There is a fervent determination about Stevenson as he chats candidly about the imminent Edinburgh derby which will make or break his club's European ambitions for next season. He also talks of squad camaraderie, part of which involves him being ribbed on a regular basis about those tattoos.

He informed Hearts before signing from Ayr United in January that he intends undergoing surgery this summer to remove some of the inkings from his body. Manager Jim Jefferies has opined that the 25-year-old "went a wee bit mad" earlier in life but someone looking moderately mental could be considered a useful ally in a derby. Certainly, the Hibernian players aren't likely to feel all warm and cuddly up against Stevenson.

The jokes flying around the Riccarton dressing room at his expense are delivered in good nature, often by first-team coach Gary Locke. If nothing else, they offer evidence of squad harmony at a time when two successive defeats are threatening to derail Hearts' aim of qualifying for Europe.

The Illustrated Men - footballers with striking tattoos

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It is essential Saturday's visitors arrive in Leith with an edge to their game as they attempt to close a six-point gap on their city rivals. Easter Road is known as a graveyard for shrinking violets. Stevenson's appearance hints at someone with a rebellious streak who enjoys ruffling feathers and, in that sense, he could be perfect for the Edinburgh derby.

"It's just the usual banter," he said when asked about the tattoo-baiting. "You get the boys having a wee pop at you every now and again but I'm quite handy and I give them it back. Anything I get I give back.

"Lockie's always there or thereabouts. Everywhere you turn he seems to be there cracking a joke. Don't get me wrong, I'm getting pretty sick of his jokes now. Some of them are bad. To be honest I'm not sure what to expect at Easter Road because I've never played in a derby there before. I imagine it will be the same as Tynecastle with an electric atmosphere. I played a Scottish Cup game there with St Johnstone, but that will be nothing like Saturday.

"I love going and playing in these stadiums that are tight with fans right on top of you. These are the best games to play in. It's disappointing one of the stands isn't there but I think it will be a good atmosphere no matter what."

Intense environments help motivate Stevenson, hairs rising on the back of his neck helping him produce top form. It is no coincidence that one of his most assured displays for Hearts came in the previous encounter with Hibernian last month after he replaced the concussed Ian Black.

"It's been okay so far," he said of his three-month Tynecastle career. "I enjoyed coming from Ayr to a massive club like Hearts but it's been a bit of a shock as well because there are a lot of foreign boys and I was used to the way things were at Ayr. It just takes time to adapt. Every day I feel I'm getting a bit better. You get to know the boys more and learn what they do in training and how they play in matches.

"All the foreign boys get on with the Scottish lads, there aren't any splits or anything like that. I think it's just been a strange season for Hearts with losing the last manager, then the new one coming in. It takes time for players to get to know managers. It's been hard for the foreign boys who were brought in by the last manager, but everyone gets on well and we're all striving for the same things.

"You need everybody to be in it together. What you can't have is people pulling in different directions. That's what the manager stresses. What he will try and install for next season is that everyone knows what we're in this for. We're in it together and to make Hearts better."

Stevenson encountered the fire that burns within Jim Jefferies on derby days long before his transfer from Ayr. In January 2009, the Scottish Cup fourth round draw produced an Ayrshire derby, which Jefferies' Kilmarnock eventually won following a replay.

"It was amazing playing in those games," said Stevenson. "I came on in the last derby against Hibs and that was a good experience as well. Everybody looks forward to derbies because they are so special and you really enjoy playing in them.

"The manager has always been hungry, that's why he's done so well in his career. I could see that about him at Kilmarnock. He and Billy Brown have been in management for 22 years and they're still very hungry, maybe even more so now they're back at Hearts. Jim is a passionate man and, with every team he manages, the very minimum he demands is 150 per cent. That's just the way he is. Billy and Lockie are the same.

"At Kilmarnock he didn't have much funds but always pushed them forward with the drive he has. I've always known that about him. You can tell the kind of person he is. He wants the team to succeed and he wants to do well himself. That can only be good for us next year, to have a manager like that. It wasn't just during those two games with Ayr that I learned that about him.

"Whatever he asks you to do, you do it. He's been in the managerial game for over two decades and knows it a lot better than what we do. You need to listen and learn from him. It's definitely better being on the right side of him than the wrong side, though."

The Hearts squad incurred Jefferies' wrath last weekend with a wearisome performance against Motherwell which leaves them rank outsiders for Europa League qualification. Not even the sight of a tattooed Stevenson could intimidate Jefferies in full flow after the match, and he left no-one in the home dressing room in doubt about expectations for Easter Road.

"It's just a massive game now because we need three points to try and catch them," said Stevenson. "We can still do it but we have to set our sights on Hibs. We need to beat them on Saturday and win our last two games to get into Europe. Winning three games in a row will be difficult because we have the derby, then Dundee United who are doing well, and then Celtic in the last game of the season. It's three games we are capable of winning.

"The derby is probably the best game we could have after the disappointment of last weekend. Nobody saw that performance coming and it was such a big game for us. After that, the best way to get back on track is to play Hibs and try to beat them. They have a lot to play for but we are looking to win."

Stevenson's appearance will add a touch of colour to the occasion, but he knows he is not there merely to look pretty. He is out to paint the picture of a midfielder who can be both combative and classy in the all-consuming environment of an Edinburgh derby.