Substituting Ryan Stevenson wasn’t an option for Hearts manager Gary Locke earlier in the season. He was in the “must play” category unless injured. On Saturday, Locke withdrew Stevenson for tactical reasons with the scoreline blank against Ross County and reaped full dividends as Hearts secured a 2-0 win.
A combination of better-developed youngsters and fewer injuries granted Stevenson the luxury of a rare rest for the final half-hour. He was replaced by Jamie Walker, playing his first competitive match following three months out with a broken metatarsal. An attacking midfield trio of Walker, Sam Nicholson and Billy King in behind striker Dale Carrick helped carve open the County defence, ably assisted by Scott Robinson in the closing stages.
Stevenson watched the above unfold from the technical area. He even resisted the temptation to get involved in the handbags as Jamie Hamill was red-carded for clashing with the Ross County manager, Derek Adams, after scoring the game’s first goal. His work done for the day, he was grateful for the chance to put his feet up. However, that should not be interpreted as a lessening of his importance to the team.
If anything, the decision to remove Stevenson was a feather in Locke’s cap. His experience helped carry Hearts through vital games earlier in the season and the triumvirate of Walker, Nicholson and King added a certain freshness at the weekend. Ultimately, it was a catalyst for victory.
“The manager obviously just felt he wanted to change it and we all know there are boys biding their time and eager to get into the team,” said Stevenson, right, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “Jamie Walker has been out for a long time but he came on. If it was a tactical change, it was the right thing because we won 2-0 in the end. That’s part and parcel of football. The main thing is that we’re all in it together.
“It’s a good thing that, if you’re feeling tired or things aren’t happening for you, we have that bit of depth now where boys can come on in your place. The young boys have learned over the course of the season. You can see they’ve grown and you can see that they’re developing every day. We now want to finish the season strongly, go away for the summer and then come back to hit the ground running for next season. The next 12 months are going to be huge for us.”
The next few days are pretty crucial too. Hamill is now suspended for Sunday’s Edinburgh derby, which is a vital game for Hibs as they strive to avoid the Scottish Premiership’s relegation play-off. Robinson is expected to deputise in midfield but the absence of Hamill’s experience makes Stevenson’s know-how all the more vital.
“Jamie will be missed massively. Hamill and Jamie MacDonald have been our two best players this season by a country mile,” he continued. “It will be tough to replace him against Hibs but we have boys there who can step in. Scott Robinson has been excellent this year and there are others champing at the bit on the bench. It’s good that the manager has a headache now. With Jamie missing, someone else will be raring to go.”
Stevenson was reluctant to criticise his close friend too much but did concede that Hamill’s collision with Adams was rather needless. “I was in the dugout at the time. I was thinking, ‘do I get myself involved in this or do I do the sensible thing and use my old head?’ I just sat down. Jamie is one of my best mates so I know what he’s like. He can look after himself so I just left him to it.
“I think there was a lot made out of nothing to be totally honest. Jamie will know he probably shouldn’t have done what he did but I think, if Derek’s being honest, he’s probably made a bit more of it than what there actually was.”
That incident cast a slight shadow over an otherwise positive week for Hearts. News from Lithuania that the transfer of club shares to Ann Budge’s BIDCO 1874 had been agreed brought huge relief, topped up by a relatively comfortable win over County. Stevenson explained why good performances and results are still so important despite the fact his team are relegated.
“After a good week for the club, we always knew the fans were going to turn out for a game that probably didn’t mean that much since our fate has been decided,” he said. “We knew it was important to put on a performance for the supporters turning out in numbers. It wasn’t just wanting to keep momentum going for ourselves, it was for the fans first and foremost.
“I think it shows how much the team has grown over the season. Ross County started the second half really well and at the beginning of the season, or midway through, we’d probably have buckled at that stage. We got through it this time and came away with a good 2-0 victory.
“Our mini goal from now till the end of the season is to finish above someone if we didn’t have the 15-point deduction. That’s the aim and we’ve started off well against Ross County. Now we want to take it into Sunday, which is another massive game for us. It’s a derby, we’ll take plenty fans down to Easter Road and, more than anything, it’s about putting in performances for them from now until the summer.
“What’s happening now is kind of too little too late but we’re playing well now. It’s strange how it can happen and it’s been a strange season. All the boys have learned through the course of the season. The main thing is this club is still standing.
“You don’t need any extra reason to get up for a derby. If Hibs are going to be in the Premiership next year and we’re in the Championship, then it’s a game I’ll definitely miss and I’m sure the fans will be the same. If this is the last Edinburgh derby for a while, then we want to go out with a win.”