HE may be the toast of Easter Road these days, but there’s no chance of Lewis Stevenson getting carried with his cult-hero status.
As Hibs’ longest-serving player, the 27-year-old has become all too aware in bleak recent seasons of the dangers of familiarity breeding contempt. It’s safe to say he has had his fair share of embattlement during his decade or so as a first-team player. Right now, however, Stevenson is savouring what he hopes will prove to be a prolonged purple patch as a fans’ favourite in a Hibs team enjoying their longest winning run in 16 years and dreaming of promotion and Scottish Cup glory.
“This is probably the best it’s been in my time at Hibs,” he told the Evening News. “I’m enjoying coming into work and enjoying the games at the weekend. There were times before where you were thinking ‘come on, please can we just get a win’ whereas now we’re almost expecting a win and a good performance. It’s a nice place to be these days and everybody seems to have bought into the changes throughout the club. Hopefully we can keep that going because it makes a massive difference when the fans are behind you.”
So often a utility man shoehorned in to fill a hole in the past, Stevenson has been transformed into a marauding, goal-scoring, assist-making full-back by head coach Alan Stubbs. The ever-humble Kirkcaldy boy is typically bashful when asked to reflect on his own exploits this season.
“People have been saying I’m a bit of a cult hero just now, but I just take the good and the bad as it comes,” he said. “It’s going well just now but it’s up to me to keep it going. I know if my form dips, things will change very quickly.
“There was one game where I could hear them shouting ‘shoot’ when I got the ball, but I’ve got three goals in the last few months so my goals are not such a novelty any more. The manager’s been encouraging me and Dave Gray to go forward at every opportunity. We’re not told just to stay on the touch-line, we’re encouraged to go inside and get involved high up the pitch. My goals are down to the manager. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be getting into these positions.
“I’m getting a fair amount of assists as well, which always looks good, but that’s down to the boys who are putting the ball in the net. I’ve put in plenty decent crosses and passes in previous seasons but if people are not scoring from them then nobody notices. It’s the people who put the ball in the net who should get the credit.”
Hibs have the chance to turn the screw in their pursuit of second place in the Championship when they welcome third-place Rangers to Easter Road on Sunday. From ten points behind the Ibrox side in December, the Hibees have pulled six points clear of them, albeit with a game in hand, after taking 33 points from a possible 39 in their last 13 league games.
Factoring in Rangers’ run of one win from their last seven league games, Hibs are widely expected to complete a clean sweep of four Championship victories over the beleaguered Glasgow outfit this weekend. “You can’t take Rangers lightly – they’re still a massive club with some good players,” said Stevenson. “But we’ve got a lot of confidence just now and we know that if we perform, we’ve got a good chance of beating them. With the new manager [Stuart McCall] coming in, they’ve got a lot to prove so it’ll probably be one of our hardest games of the season. It could be a scrappy game, but as long as we win, even if it’s 1-0, we’ll take that.”
Hibs’ journey from relegation-induced fragility at the start of the season to consistent winners at the business end can be traced through their four matches against Rangers so far.
The first of those was Hibs’ first competitive game of the campaign in August, when, as major underdogs, they threatened an Ibrox upset in the Petrofac Cup before eventually succumbing 2-1 in extra-time after a controversial red card for Danny Handling took the sting out of their challenge. “We played well against them that night,” said Stevenson. “We were unfortunate but we didn’t get too down about.”
If that game saw the first green shoots of recovery under Stubbs, it was only when Hibs returned to Ibrox on league duty at the end of September that they showed they might just be a force to be reckoned with this season. An accomplished 3-1 away win, with two goals from Jason Cummings and one from David Gray, would prove to be the catalyst for a run of 22 league games in which they have lost just once.
“That was the one that really built the confidence and we’ve been on a great run ever since,” said Stevenson. “We certainly weren’t favourites that night. I think most people thought Rangers would turn us over.”
Then came the pinnacle of Hibs’ season so far, a 4-0 obliteration of Rangers at Easter Road which further underlined the potential of Stubbs’ team and set in motion a dismal, and potentially season-destroying, run of results for Rangers which they have been unable to snap out of.
“The game at Easter Road was probably the high point of the season for us,” said Stevenson. “It was one of those days when everything went right for us. We didn’t really pay much attention to what effect it would have on Rangers or what they were doing, we just saw it as a 4-0 win against one of our rivals.”
And most recently, in February, was the 2-0 victory at Ibrox when Stevenson scored the second on a night when Hibs showed a live television audience that they have a winning mentality to match their impressive playing style.
“We didn’t play well at Ibrox the last time,” admitted Stevenson. “If Rangers won that night, it probably would have been a fair result. But we showed that night we can win in different ways. We can play good football but when it gets to the nitty-gritty we can also dig things out.”
Despite Hibs’ renaissance, a draw against Rangers will hand the title to runaway leaders Hearts with seven games still to play. Despite this scenario, Stevenson is buoyed by the fact Hibs are now showing a similar level of consistency to their city rivals.
“I thought it would be tight between the three of us for the title but fair play to Hearts - they’ve not let up at all,” said Stevenson. “To only drop nine points at this stage, sometimes you have to hold your hands up and say ‘the best team’s won’.
“We didn’t make a great start to the season and that set us back a bit but once we got into our stride and started playing the way the manager wanted us to and in the formation that suited us, we’ve done well. On our day we’re a match for anyone in the league.
“Since losing at Falkirk in December, we’ve probably been on the type of winning run that Hearts have been on since the start of the season. Hopefully that’s us peaking at the right time and we can keep it going right to the end. We’ve got a chance to make a lot of fond memories if we can get the finish we want with promotion and a good run in the Scottish Cup. I don’t see any reason why we can’t.”