Ryan STEVENSON famously walked out on Hearts two-and-a-half years ago, but he has no intention of doing so for a second time now that he has fallen in love with the Tynecastle club.
The 29-year-old appeared to have washed his hands of the Jambos when he quit in December 2011 over concerns for his pregnant partner’s wellbeing amid the stress of ongoing late payment of wages.
However, even despite his bitterness at the way things were unfolding towards the tail end of Vladimir Romanov’s reign, the club had already seeped under his skin, to the extent that he jumped at the chance of a return at the start of last season.
Since coming back north from his brief spell at Ipswich Town, there has been plenty more turbulence for Stevenson to contend with as he has found himself cast as the senior figure in a young team battling against the toughest concoction of football adversity imaginable.
Despite suffering relegation and seeing the club slip within weeks of potential extinction, the Ayrshireman has no regrets about coming back to Hearts. In fact, such has been the spirit of togetherness at the club through these dark and distressing days, he says he now has the same strength of feeling for Hearts as he does about his beloved Ayr United.
“I was at Hearts as a schoolboy, but Jim Jefferies brought me in a couple of years ago and you realise straight away how big a club it is,” said Stevenson. “I’m lucky to have played for Ayr United because I supported them, but I now have the same feeling for Hearts as I do for Ayr.
“I went away from Tynecastle and a lot of people probably questioned my sanity when I came back, but for me there was no other option but to come back because there was such a feeling about the place.
“It’s not just the manager and the players but everyone around the club. It’s like one big family and I’d love to stay here as long as I can. It’s hard to see people you are close to lose their jobs and thrown out of the club because it’s their passion as well. It’s been a difficult year for everyone, but personally there’s nowhere I’d rather be.”
After all the chaos of his two spells at Hearts so far, Stevenson is relishing the prospect of some serenity at the club after the way was paved in midweek for new owner Ann Budge to take the helm possibly as early as next month. The midfielder-cum-forward envisages a bright future for Hearts, starting with a strong challenge for the Championship title next season.
“The club is still here and that’s the biggest thing,” said Stevenson, who received the news about the club’s likely survival while adding to his array of body art in an Ayr tattoo parlour. “We’ve got a chairwoman coming in who is a Hearts fan and wants to do the right thing, so hopefully relegation is a step back to take two forward.
“I hope we can come back up at the first time of asking and hopefully Hearts are a club built on strong foundations and these fans will never have to go through what they have for the last two seasons, digging deep for money they probably didn’t have on two or three occasions.
“It would mean everything to be part of the team that gets back up to the Premiership. Relegation wasn’t what I or anyone else wanted and for me to stay here and hopefully get Hearts promoted to the Premiership would be a way to say thanks to the fans for sticking by us this full season.
“We’ll need fresh bodies in and a bit more experience to go for the title push. It won’t be easy but we’ll give Rangers a run for their money and if the manager brings in the players he wants then there’s no reason why we can’t win the league.
“We’re not going to accept Rangers are going to win it and settle for second – our main goal is to win it but we’ll need reinforcements.”
Stevenson is adamant that the man to lead next season’s title bid should be current boss Gary Locke, whose contract is due to expire at the end of the season.
“I think more than anything else in this world the manager deserves his shot at this,” said Stevenson. “Everyone knows what this club means to him, it’s his dream job, and with what he’s had to deal with in his first managerial job, under the circumstances, what he’s done has been nothing short of remarkable.
“With the feelings I’ve got for him as a friend, I would obviously back him to the hilt, but away from that, as a manager and as a coach, he’s got a massive career ahead of him, because he’s a top, top manager and a top, top coach.
“So, I think it would be the right thing to give him the chance bring in his own players and put his own stamp on it. I’m more than positive that he’ll be a great manager for Hearts in the future.
“Personally, I think the job he’s done – and also Billy Brown and Robbie Neilson since he came in – has been nothing short of remarkable.
“With Billy working with no contract and for no money, it just shows you that everyone here is pulling in the right direction for Hearts, to try and do well and try and save the club.
“It’s the right sort of people at the club and I’m more than sure if they get their chance they’ll get us back to where we belong. You could have brought in the most experienced manager in the world and he would have found it difficult. We’ve had young kids, injuries. I wouldn’t have thanked you to be in that situation.
“It’s been a horrendous task for him to try and take us forward. He will admit there are times he’s made mistakes and so have the players, but it’s his first ten months in a job so he’s going to make mistakes, especially with little help.
“He deserves his chance more than anyone else in the world.”