HEARTS boss Gary Locke today insisted that he would have no qualms about throwing Ryan Stevenson straight back into the fray against St Mirren this weekend.
The 28-year-old was sidelined after suffering a torn medial ligament in the Edinburgh derby at the start of this season and there were fears at the time that he could be out for three months.
However, Stevenson has recovered with remarkable speed and came off the bench to play the final 20 minutes of last weekend’s goalless draw with Dundee United, just six weeks after sustaining the knee injury.
And the player’s impressive return to fitness means that Locke could be ready to start him in Saturday’s crunch clash with Danny Lennon’s Buddies at Tynecastle.
Locke has been forced to work with an increasingly youthful squad this season following financial cuts in the wake of the club entering administration in the summer.
And Stevenson has proved to be a hugely influential figure on the younger players in the Tynecastle dressing-room.
The midfielder is a huge character on and off the pitch and he, along with Jamie Hamill and Jamie MacDonald, are the most experienced players in the squad.
His presence in the starting line-up against the Buddies – who are the team closest to Hearts in the Premiership table right now – would be a huge boost to the Tynecastle side.
“We will watch him over the next couple of days in training and see how he is,” said Locke.
“If I needed to start him then I wouldn’t have any problems with that but we will see how he goes.
“He is a player that the rest of the boys look up to and respect. It’s great to have him back.”
There had been some suggestion that Stevenson, who came on to replace Jason Holt against United, would continue on the comeback trail by playing for the Under-20s in their 1-1 draw against the Paisley side last night.
But the artificial surface at Airdrie’s Shyberry Excelsior Stadium – where the match was played – put paid to that idea.
Locke felt that the playing surface was too much of a risk for the winger and instead he will assess his progress in training this week before making a final decision on what his involvement will be this Saturday.
“I wasn’t too keen to have him playing on the astroturf,” he said. “But he looks fit, he is a fit lad anyway and he has trained really well since coming on at the weekend.
“He reacted really well after Saturday and I think that everyone saw by the way he was straight into a couple of tackles, that it has not had any effect on him which, psychologically, is a big thing.
“It shows that he is feeling good in himself and about how his knee is and how his fitness is. He is certainly one who will come into the reckoning again on Saturday.”