RANGERS can’t say they weren’t warned if Ryan Stevenson finds himself on the score sheet at Tynecastle on Sunday.
Put simply, the former Ayr United midfielder has become Hearts’ big-game player.
The pattern emerging this year is that if Rangers, Celtic, Hibs or European opponents rock up at Tynecastle, Stevenson generally scores.
Now playing as a central striker, the 28-year-old can be considered the main goal threat as Paulo Sergio’s fourth-place side bid to maintain their unbeaten record against the Old Firm this season. He’s scored 11 goals since joining Hearts in January last year, but, of the nine he’s scored in 2011, six have been accounted for against the Old Firm, Hibs and Paksi. The notion of being a big-game hunter doesn’t sit easily with this driven Ayrshire boy, however.
“It does seem like I save my goals for the bigger games,” he acknowledges. “I don’t want to become labelled as a big-game player, though, because I want to score and do well in all the games, not just the big games. The important games for us need to be the games against all the other clubs outwith the Old Firm and the derbies because those big games take care of themselves. We need to make sure we’re always up for the so-called lesser games. I’d be just as happy chipping in with goals in those games as well.”
Nonetheless, while he may wish to add more goals against the lesser lights, his overall success this year, particularly since Sergio’s arrival, is a far cry from this time last year when he was still finding his feet after being plucked out of the Second Division by Jim Jefferies. He was getting the odd start, but generally offering back-up as the likes of David Templeton, Rudi Skacel and Kevin Kyle played the lead roles in the memorable run which carried the team into title contention for a brief spell. “When I came here I was always going to need time to bed in and get used to playing in a new place with new people in a higher league,” he says. “I’d been at Ayr three years and knew the place inside out. I was a big fish in a smaller pond and I was comfortable in my environment. Here, it’s a massive club in comparison. But now, having been here for nearly two years, I feel as comfortable here as I did at Ayr. I just love coming through here every day to train and play for Hearts, long may it continue.”
While Stevenson, understandably, took time to get going in a Hearts jersey, the player himself always knew he had it in him to prove Jefferies right for taking a gamble. Ironically, however, it’s only since Jefferies’ departure that Stevenson has really come into his own.
“After scoring seven goals last season I was looking to hit the ground running this season, but I didn’t start the first few games under Jim. But then the new manager came in and things turned round for me really quickly. You’re always nervous when a new manager comes in so coming in and scoring two goals in his first game [against Paksi] was massive for me and I’ve managed to carry things on from there. I’m not being big headed but I know what I’m capable of, so it’s not come as a surprise to me that I’ve been doing well lately. I just want to play every week and if I do that I’m confident I’ll chip in with my fair share of goals.”
Stevenson’s emergence as a key man for Hearts has been all the more admirable as he’s managed it while learning on the job how to become a centre-forward, having only previously known life as a midfielder. “It’s been hard for me adapting to being a striker,” he admits. “At a club the size of Hearts, you’re judged on every performance and when I was first put up front I found it really tough because I’d only played up there once or twice before at Ayr.
“I pretty much played up front from Christmas [after Kyle got injured] until the end of last season and it was really hard because I didn’t feel as comfortable as I did in midfield. But as every week passes I’m starting to feel more comfortable, and, dare I say it, I’d probably feel uncomfortable dropping back to midfield now.”
So does he feel extra pressure being the focal point of the attack in a team whose ambitions are growing loftier by the week? “I don’t really think of myself as the main goal threat in the team but I’m pretty confident that, if I get three or four chances in a game, I’ll take at least one of them,” he says. “Guys like Rudi always chip in with a fair amount of goals and Temps showed last season that he can go on a scoring run, so I don’t feel as if the onus is all on me. If I wasn’t scoring or at my best, then you know you’ve got those two backing you up who are more than capable of chipping in with goals as well.” In a further twist to Stevenson’s unlikely lead role, he’s being selected ahead of etsablished strikers like John Sutton and Stephen Elliott. “It’s flattering that the manager’s picking me ahead of natural strikers like John and Stephen,” he adds. “He’s shown a lot of faith in me since he came in, but, having said that, I think I’ve made it hard for him to leave me out.
“I know there’s other boys breathing down my neck and that helps. I don’t really know what it is that he prefers about me over the other strikers. I’ve just always seen it as an honour to be a professional footballer, so even if I’m not playing well, at the very least I’ll make sure I’m giving 100 per cent.”
As a late flourisher who could easily have still been languishing in the SFL had Jefferies not taken a chance on him, Stevenson is determined to make the most of his big opportunity. Heartened by his rise to a level at which he feels he belongs, there was never much chance of the confident Stevenson being starstruck at the prospect of facing a Rangers side who have won each of their five away games without conceding a goal. “I just find it exciting playing against the Old Firm,” he says. “I enjoy the pressure – when you’re playing as well as we are, you know you’re going to give them a game.
“I worked as hard as I possibly could at Ayr for times like this. Playing there was great because they were the team I supported but I always wanted to play at the highest level I possibly could. It’s coming up for two years since I came here and I’ve achieved quite a lot. I’ve played and scored in a lot of big games and I’ve played against Tottenham in Europe. I don’t want to just come to Hearts and be an ordinary Hearts player for three years and then drop back down the divisions. I want to keep moving up.”