WHEN fans were mulling over their potential derby heroes ahead of last night’s clash, Ryan Stevenson’s name wouldn’t even have featured in Hearts supporters’ conversations.
The former Ayr United player had all but been ruled out, with Gary Locke fearing his squad’s elder statesman had done serious damage to his knee after being forced off early in Saturday’s defeat at Kilmarnock.
To the surprise of everyone, Stevenson was listed in Locke’s starting line-up against Hibs after making a Lazarus-like recovery. It looked a risky move, with the 29-year-old taking to the field with his right leg heavily strapped.
It was hard to tell in the early stages how his fitness was holding up as, like the rest of the Hearts attackers, he hardly saw any of the ball as Hibs dominated the first half-hour.
However, as the clocked ticked into the 34th minute, Stevenson showed he was in fine fettle. With one first-time swipe of that injured right leg, he fired a stunning effort thundering into the back of the net from fully 20 yards. It beat Ben Williams all ends up and Stevenson wheeled away like an Olympic sprinter to celebrate what was one of the best and most significant goals he’ll ever score in his career. It was his third derby goal for Hearts and he celebrated by racing the length of the park, goading the Hibs fans with a cupped ear as he motored past the East Stand.
And when he reached the away support, who were crammed in behind the goal at the other end of the pitch, he stood there lapping up the plaudits, pounding his chest and kissing the badge on his shirt. He was booked for his celebrations afterwards as Willie Collum spotted him making that gesture in the direction of the Hibs supporters. But the 29-year-old agreed that the yellow card had been more than worth it
“I got a bit excited, but I’ll take it,” he said. “It was enjoyable. It was sweet to score at Easter Road, especially the manner I scored it too. It was a special moment for me. It’s right up there. Obviously my cup final goals [he scored a double against St Mirren in League Cup final last season] are pretty special to me, but every goal in a derby is a great feeling.”
The 3,800 Hearts fans packed into the Dunbar End certainly thought it was something special, too. After that wonder strike, Stevenson’s every touch was greeted by chants of “Stevo, Stevo” and, as the game reached its final stages and the buoyant away support started to believe that they might just pull it off, they rose as one to bow down to the goalscorer as he if he was some kind of tattooed footballing God. And, in a way, he was.
Because he’d helped Hearts perform something of a miracle. Make no bones about it, this had been a doing in every sense of the word for Hearts, the first half in particular.
Hibs had pounded the Hearts goal in the opening half hour, raining shots in and piling the pressure on the visitors’ defence. But they just couldn’t score. Hibs found themselves up against a goalkeeper in sensational form, with Jamie MacDonald, who made excellent saves to deny James Collins, Scott Robertson and Liam Craig playing just as big a part in this sucker-punch victory as Stevenson.
This was another moment that will have proved to Stevenson he was right to return to the club which he had left on bad terms almost two years ago. He was criticised heavily by Hearts fans when he asked the club to terminate his contract in 2011 over the ongoing late payment of wages.
And many Jambos weren’t happy when he returned to Tynecastle at the beginning of last season after an unfulfilling spell at Ipswich Town. Now, however, he is one of the first names Hearts fans want to see in their starting line-up.
Although Stevenson admitted he had suffered some pain throughout last night’s derby match, Hearts can be certain that their talismanic midfielder will be doing everything in his power to make sure he is fit and available for this weekend’s league clash against his old club, St Johnstone. “I felt okay,” he said. “When I was training on Tuesday I didn’t feel great so I had ice on it overnight.
“It was a derby, though, and, with the importance of the game, your emotions are running high and the adrenalin kind of took me through it. I’d imagine I’ll be sore afterwards, so I’ll just rest up and hopefully be ready for Saturday.”