RYAN STEVENSON may only be 28, but he’s already seen as one of the more experienced heads in the Tynecastle dressing room amongst the youthful makeup of Hearts’ threadbare squad.
But the player admits that his recent bust-up with Liverpool kid Jordan Rossiter left him feeling even older.
A dangerous tackle from the little midfielder during Hearts’ 1-0 defeat to a Liverpool select at The Oval in Belfast on Saturday afternoon sparked a furious reaction from Stevenson and the pair squared up to one another.
Despite being just 16-years-old, Rossiter had to be held back by his team-mates and even challenged Stevenson to a meet up at the end of the game.
With the SPFL Premiership kick-off just days away, Stevenson was raging at the time of the challenge, but saw the funny side of it when one of his team-mates told him just how young his opponent – who has been likened to a young Steven Gerrard – was.
He conceded: “I didn’t realise how old he was until I came off.
“In my eyes it wasn’t a good tackle and it was one of those things where we are all trying to look after ourselves because the squad is already thin enough as it is.
“We were all just trying to get through pre-season without picking up any kind of knocks.
“I think it was Kevin McHattie who told me that he was born in 1997 and that he’d only just turned 16. I couldn’t believe it.
“He didn’t look 16 and he wasn’t giving up either, to be fair, and while he was being held back he was telling me that he would see me up the tunnel.
“If there’s anything like making me feel old, then that was it.”
Stevenson admitted that it was disappointing to lose the final match of their pre-season friendlies, but reckons that the physical benefits of the six games that they now have under their belts far outweigh any results they may have gained.
Hearts only lost two of their friendly matches and Stevenson said: “It’s been quite a difficult pre-season because it has been so hot, which is something that we were maybe not expecting.
“It has been a bit harder because of that but I suppose that it might work out in our favour in the end.
“Obviously we were disappointed to lose, but they paid £1million for Joao Teixeira, who played in midfield for them, and I think that just shows the difference between ourselves and clubs in England.
“Playing two games over the course of about a day and a half has also been difficult in terms of recovery but it has also been a good test for us.
“It has also been good for all of the boys to get together and try to gel. It’s a young squad and it has been nice to get away for a few days and have a bit of banter.
“The important thing is that we are ready for the start of the league campaign.”
Pre-season may have ended in defeat but Stevenson believes that Hearts have returned from their Belfast trip as a stronger unit.
And he says that the few days they spent in Ireland will have had huge benefits for the younger members of the squad in particular.
“When you’re away, you’re always together whether its for training or playing a game or having a pre-match meal, and it can only be good for the young boys”, he continued.
“Everyone has gelled together and everyone knows that it is going to be a tough situation. “We’re all just looking forward to Sunday now.”
This weekend sees Hearts open their league campaign with a trip to face St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park.
The Jambos will have to negotiate the next few months, at the very least, with a small squad and, on that note, Stevenson admitted that Hearts will be hoping Callum Tapping recovers from his knee injury in time to make the side for the clash with Tommy Wright’s side.
The young midfielder played a key role towards the end of the last campaign and had featured heavily throughout the pre-season matches.
But his involvement in Sunday’s league opener against St Johnstone is in some doubt after he was stretchered off towards the end of the game against Liverpool with what looked to be a bad knee injury.
“As soon as you saw it happen, you feared the worst”, Stevenson admitted.
“I don’t think that there is any doubt that he will be a big player for us this season because he was really starting to make his mark at the tail-end of the last one.
“It is mostly going to be young boys that make our side this season, it is not going to be a year where you can bed them in gradually. Everyone is going to have to step up to the plate if we want to get out of the situation that we are in.
“The likes of Callum, Jason Holt, Jamie Walker and Billy King are going to have to try to play as well as they can every week.
“I don’t think a lot of our young boys are that far away.
“For these guys this is season for them to embrace. It’s a great opportunity for them to have the chance to play for a team like Hearts, week-in, week-out.
“This is such a big club and they have always had top players. Obviously things have changed in recent months but this could be a massive year for us.
“There’s probably no bigger stage to play on, outside of Celtic in the SPL, than Tynecastle, in my opinion.
“I think that this season you will find out not only what their character is like - and not only them but also guys like myself, Jamie Hamill and Jamie Macdonald.
“If they can help get us out of this mess then these kids, by the age of just 20 or 21, will be heroes.”
That first match will be a stern test for the Gorgie side as their opposition have already played competitively in Europe and pulled off a stunning victory, over two legs, against Norwegian side Rosenborg.
Stevenson knows that Hearts face a tough start with their opening three matches in the league. The match against Saints is quickly followed by the Edinburgh derby and then a trip to face Partick Thistle on a Friday night.
He conceded: “St Johnstone are doing really well right now, their result in Europe proved that and I think that the first three games are going to be big tests for us.
“The boys are raring to go. There will be bumps along the way, that is a certainty, but I think that we are all looking forward to the challenge.
“It is definitely going to be an exciting season for us.
“The boys know what is at stake and if we finish in 11th or tenth position then it’s like winning the league.
“We’ve got absolutely everything to play for.”