Three years have lapsed since Ryan Stevenson enjoyed a sustained run in his favoured position.
When Kevin Kyle suffered a chronic hip injury in January 2011, Stevenson was shunted from his natural central midfield role to become a makeshift centre-forward for Hearts. He has played midfield only occasionally since.
The player forged a reputation as a goalscoring midifelder with Ayr United and proved himself an able deputy for Kyle up front. He remained as a striker throughout 2011 and left Tynecastle in acrimonious circumstances at the end of that year. He joined Ipswich Town and managed only three starts before returning to Hearts in August 2012, where he again found himself leading the attack. Stevenson finally returned to central midfield against Celtic last week and admitted it was a slightly bizarre experience.
Whether he stays there for tomorrow’s trip to Motherwell remains to be seen, but the 29-year-old argued that he is more of a goalscoring threat when coming forward from the middle of the park. He is keen to stay there but would have no issue playing as a forward again if asked by manager Gary Locke. “I’m more comfortable coming from deep and getting on the ball,” he told the Evening News. “In my three seasons at Ayr, albeit at a lesser level, I generally scored 15 to 20 goals each year and most of them were coming onto the ball from deep. I find that easier to do than being up front leading the line.
“It was nice when the manager said he was going to put me back into midfield. It was kind of strange going back in there. It’s been a long time since I played midfield. I enjoyed being back in the position I’m most comfortable in and the position I enjoy playing, but I know I could be back up front sooner rather than later.
“Thinking back on it, when Kevin Kyle got injured a few years back I went up front and just seemed to stay there. When Paulo Sergio came in, I was played up front as well and the same under John McGlynn. It’s been a learning curve for me over the last couple of years, having to play up front. I’m happy wherever I play. As long as I’m playing week in and week out I’ll give 100 per cent for the club. When I went to Ipswich I played midfield but at Hearts it’s been that long ago since I played there regularly.
“I found it strange being back in midfield when we played games in training. Your bearings are off because you’re used to playing as a striker. I love playing in there because that’s where I’ve always played and always enjoyed it. In an ideal world, I’d be playing in there more often but the situation is what it is. Wherever I’m asked to play, I’ll give my best.”
The arrival of Paul McCallum on loan from West Ham United coupled with Dale Carrick maturing into a useful centre forward has allowed Locke to redeploy Stevenson in his preferred role. Locke is benefiting from the situation as much as Stevenson, for the manager has waited all season for some genuine attacking options.
Callum Paterson is another contender for the striking berths, as is 18-year-old Gary Oliver. Motherwell, though, are expected to find themselves facing a front two of McCallum and Carrick. “Dale has come on leaps and bounds over the season, as have most of the young boys,” said Stevenson. “It takes time to adjust to everything – playing in a first team, playing in these surroundings, playing in this league. We’ve also managed to bring Paul in and he’ll be a massive asset between now and the end of the season. It’s nice for the manager to have these options. At the beginning of the season, we didn’t really have any options. It was just myself up front and that was about it. We’re playing better as a team now because all the younger boys have learned over the course of the season. They’re more comfortable in the league now. It’s good for the manager to have that between now and the end of the season.”
There is a marked difference between the more streetwise Hearts team heading to Lanarkshire tomorrow and the one which naively allowed a 1-0 lead to be overturned on their last visit to Fir Park. Stevenson led the forward line that day and scored before goals from Craig Moore and Shaun Hutchinson sent Hearts back to Edinburgh with nothing. “It’s a positive that the younger lads have taken things on board and it can only stand the club in good stead,” continued Stevenson. “Most of these young players will have massive futures in the game, which can only be a good thing for them and Hearts.
“They’ve always had plenty to say and been a bit cheeky. They’re a good bunch of boys who are always bubbly and always keeping you on your toes. I think it was more the naivety on the pitch, that was the biggest thing for them. That only changes through getting games. You can be the best player in the world but if you haven’t played in a first team or experienced a first-team situation, you’re going to struggle.
“The young boys in our team have taken everything on the chin and taken it all in, positive or negative. Being flung in at the deep end can only be a good thing for them in the long run.”