HOMING in on the Aberdeen goal in the dying embers of Saturday’s match at Pittodrie, there was one definite thought in Ryan Stevenson’s mind.
Gary Locke and Billy Brown screamed for a cross from the visitors’ technical area. Jamie Walker entered the penalty area doing likewise. Instead, Stevenson dispatched a raking drive into the top corner, silencing everyone in the process.
The 29-year-old spent an enjoyable journey down the A90 on Saturday evening and was entitled to wallow in self-righteousness. Given the angle from which he lashed the final goal in Hearts’ 3-1 win, crossing certainly looked the more sensible option. Yet Stevenson produced a stunning finish to take everyone by surprise. Except himself.
“I was just thinking about being composed. I’m always confident when I’m in those positions,” he told the Evening News. “I don’t feel flustered, I just get my head down and hit the ball and hopefully it goes in the back of the net. Luckily, that one went in.
“I never thought about crossing it. Jamie, the manager and Billy Brown have all said to me that, when I went to shoot, they felt I should be crossing it. That never entered my mind. Once I get within range of shooting, I’m always going to shoot.
“I’ve had the last laugh but if I’d missed it I think I’d have been getting a few pelters in the changing room. It was my fault for the Aberdeen goal, letting Niall McGinn get away [at a corner] so I was desperate to rectify that. I was just happy we got the three points and it was nice for myself to score again.”
Stevenson’s transformation in the eyes of Hearts fans has reached unprecedented extents this season. So much so that he is now viewed very much as a talisman by the support. He has come full circle after walking out on the club almost two years ago, to the point where he is now the subject of “we’re not worthy” bowing from the stands.
Goals like Saturday’s and the winner against Hibs in the recent League Cup quarter-final have ensured Stevenson is not just accepted again, but idolised. “It does surprise me a wee bit. You never take that sort of thing for granted. It’s humbling,” he said.
“Hearing the fans sing your name makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It’s something, as a footballer, which is such a great feeling when supporters sing your name. During the course of the season I want to repay them. That’s by scoring goals and getting us out of the situation we’re in.
“From the way things were for me, to coming back, and now the way the club is with everybody making the sacrifices, it’s important everyone is in it together. From the fans to the manager to the backroom staff to the players, we definitely are.
“All season, the fans have been behind everybody. From a personal point of view it’s really nice that they’re backing me and I can’t speak highly enough of them. It’s a massive boost for me that they’ve been there for me. Obviously it’s been a difficult time for everyone.
“It’s going to be a unique season no matter what happens. If we manage to get ourselves out of this and stay up, it will be for the fans.”
Avoiding relegation remains an ambitious task given Hearts remain 13 points adrift at the bottom of the Scottish Premiership table. However, winning at Aberdeen rekindled some hope after a depressing run of league results. Stevenson explained the danger of previous false dawns.
“It’s obviously nice to get a goal at the weekend but the result was more important for us. It’s a big three points. We’ve been here before. We’ve got good results and then gone out the next week and let ourselves down. We have a wee break now after the Wolfsburg game tomorrow but Ross County at home [a week on Saturday] is going to be a massive day for us.
“Going out against St Johnstone and losing goals, it kind of fell flat after the high of the cup win at Easter Road. There is a break coming up so we need to go away and rest and get ready. The biggest thing for us just now is going on a run to get to zero points firstly. Then we need to try and catch teams above us.
“There will be a little mini league with us, Ross County, Kilmarnock and teams like that. It’s vitally important that we pick up points against teams round about us.”
Tomorrow, one of Germany’s most reputable clubs visit Edinburgh for a friendly match aimed at raising funds for Hearts.
Fresh from their weekend victory over last season’s Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund, Wolfsburg provide hard and experienced European opposition.
Hearts manager Gary Locke will use the match to give some fringe members of his squad vital first-team experience. One or two seniors will be given the chance to rest, although Stevenson is eager to be involved.
“I want to play in every game. You’re lucky to be playing at Tynecastle, so I certainly want to be involved,” he said. “I don’t know what the manager’s plans are, whether he plans to rest a few of us or play us.
“Wolfsburg will bring over a good squad and, at the end of the day, this match is for the club so I imagine everybody will play a part.”
One of the most energetic members of Locke’s squad, Stevenson insisted he is not in need of a break. “I don’t feel any fatigue. I’ve been doing this for years and the good thing is I’ve got young boys running about me now. If I’m a bit tired, they can run a bit longer for me,” he joked.
“It’s not been any problem and having the backing of the fans home and away spurs you on even more. When you’re feeling a bit tired or breathing heavy, you can hear them and you want to run that bit extra.
“The supporters are sacrificing a lot and we want to give as much back to them as we can. It will be a good game tomorrow because Wolfsburg are a top-class team. I’m looking forward to the experience of playing against a good German team and raising funds for the club.”