A LITTLE more than four months ago, Lewis Stevenson was seriously contemplating life beyond the club where he has given the longest unbroken service of any first-team player.
The midfielder had serious concerns for his future at Hibs while enduring a concerted spell of exile from the first team and was considering the option of leaving – on loan or permanently – in the latter part of Colin Calderwood’s reign as manager.
Stevenson has since transformed himself into a mainstay of the Hibs midfield under Pat Fenlon and has started every match during the reign of the Irish manager, who was appointed at the end of November. The diminutive player, who turned 24 last month and has now made more than 100 appearances in seven years at Easter Road, is grateful for being handed the chance to shine in the centre of the pitch alongside Isaiah Osbourne. Not that he’s taking the opportunity for granted.
“It’s good to get a run of games under my belt,” said Stevenson. “It’s been nice, but I know it can all change in the blink of an eye with a couple of bad performances. It’s been a few years since I’ve played ten games in a row.”
Indeed, Stevenson has started every single one of his team’s last 14 games since impressing upon his return to senior action in a 0-0 draw at Celtic Park at the end of October. Before then, a ten-week run of games in which the player made just a handful of substitute appearances – after starting the first three games of the season – led a frustrated Stevenson to ponder thoughts of leaving.
“I suppose things like that always go through your head, because a footballer’s career is so short,” he said. “I spent quite a bit of time on the sidelines and began to think, at my age, I should be playing at some kind of level. If I went a few months without playing, I would naturally begin to think about things – I think everyone has to do that. You can’t look too far into the future.
“The old manager [Calderwood] started me in the first few games of the season, but the team and I didn’t play well. I’ve only got myself to blame. You have to accept that things like that happen – I’ve been dropped a few times in my career.”
It is unlikely that Stevenson will encounter someone more critical of his performance than himself, and admits he grew frustrated with short spells during games early this season in which he would lose his focus. Now, he believes he is reaping the rewards of a prolonged run in the senior side.
He said: “I’ve played the same position since the new manager’s been in charge. It’s nice to get a bit of continuity: you start to learn your position more, where to be on and off the ball, and which spaces to move into.
“I played the old manager’s last two games and played when Billy Brown was in charge [as interim boss]. It’s nice to know that you’re doing all right. It was kind of disheartening before – I felt I was doing okay, but the results weren’t going the right way. Now, it doesn’t seem that long that I was out of the team. People say it feels like being in Siberia when you’re not playing, but I never felt like that.”
Manager Fenlon has recruited heavily in the central midfield position, and credit must go to Stevenson for retaining his place in an area of the pitch where, for Hibs, competition for places is fierce. With Osbourne, Tom Soares and Jorge Claros all set to jostle for a start in midfield in the coming weeks, Stevenson’s ability to achieve a consistency in his performances is paramount.
“We have a lot of players vying for each position, so if you don’t perform, you’re out. There’s a lot of new players in and a few out.
“Isaiah’s a top player – he’s played in the English Premier League, so he’s going to be a joy to play with. He can do a lot of things I can’t do, but hopefully we complement each other well. Jorge and Tom can play in the middle, and we have a lot of players who can play in centre of midfield. Whatever happens I’m going to have to be ready for the challenge.
“Jorge is really good on the ball. He’s called ‘El Pitbull’, but has been quite calm in training. He looks composed and calm. We’ve got Richie Towell, too, who last played against Inverness and did well. Tom adds a bit of class and is not scared to try a pass and supports you in tight situations. There are also boys like Welshy [Sean Welsh] who’s been a top player and has gone on loan to Partick. It shows that we’re going to be fighting for places in midfield.”
With an increased rate of first-team starts having coincided almost exactly with the appointment of Fenlon, it is little wonder Stevenson is enjoying life as a vital part of the Irishman’s plans. His new lease of life, however, can also be attributed to the arrival of assistant Billy Brown in September.
“I’ve enjoyed my time at Hibs with every manager, to be honest,” said Stevenson. “It does feel different with the current manager here but it’s hard to hit the nail on the head and say why.
“Billy’s been there so there’s been continuity through the different managers. He has been a big influence and thinks if we can be more disciplined then we can transfer that onto the pitch.”
Stevenson hopes to continue the feelgood factor that surrounds himself and a Hibs team fresh from recording a first home win since the end of September. This weekend, Hibs go into their SPL meeting with Aberdeen on the back of a cup win over Kilmarnock, and their No. 16 is looking to an omen to bring another win for Fenlon’s men.
“The last couple of games, Rangers and Killie, have perhaps not been the best games, but we can hopefully build on our win at the weekend,” said Stevenson. “After the last cup game against Cowdenbeath last month, we beat Dunfermline, so hopefully we can do the same this weekend after beating Kilmarnock. Aberdeen are on a decent run of form as well, and we know it’s going to be a hard game.
“We showed a bit of resilience against Killie, and hopefully this weekend we can defend as well as we did. We stopped playing after 20 minutes, which was a bit frustrating, but if we can play for 20 minutes, why not for the whole game?”
Translating short-term form into long-term prospects is exactly what Stevenson – and Hibs – must achieve to bring in a brighter future.