Big interview: Ryan Edwards speaks on fighting to save his Hearts career
A FIGURE sporting dark hair and a beard edged towards the Easter Road touchline beside the fourth official. It wasn’t Craig Levein coming out of retirement to reinforce Hearts’ defence against Hibs, although that’s probably the only thing which would have been bigger news. No, this was Ryan Edwards preparing for his Hearts debut ten months after signing.
Teenager Connor Smith jogged off in the 65th minute before the No.22 took his place in midfield. The mystery of Edwards’ long absence heightened the intrigue surrounding his appearance in Sunday’s Edinburgh derby. He almost made a sensational impact by intercepting a short backpass during his dynamic cameo. In truth, he was simply elated to finally play a first-team game in maroon.
It is hard not to feel sorry for him. He didn’t invoke a release clause to leave relegated Partick Thistle last summer to join Hearts Reserves. Or for a loan deal at St Mirren. Manager Craig Levein shipped Edwards to Paisley after deciding he hadn’t made a sufficient impact in pre-season. He returned to Tynecastle Park in January and, after months of hard graft and endeavour, finally took to the field in a competitive fixture on Sunday.
It is also difficult not to like this humble Singapore-born Australian. He could have refused the Evening News’ request for this interview under the circumstances. Or he could have used it to hit out at Levein, coaching staff or the club as a whole. Instead, Edwards strode along the corridor offering a warm smile and handshake before giving an honest assertion of what he has been through, why he kept his counsel and never gave up on his Hearts dream.
“Nobody wants to sign for a club and be told to go on loan. To be honest, I really wanted to stay with Hearts at the start of the season,” said the 25-year-old. “When you get told you aren’t going to get game time, I took the opportunity to go elsewhere and play. In January, I really wanted to come back and try to force my way into the team.
“It’s taken a while but I know in myself that I offer something different to the Hearts midfield. I’m different to the midfielders we’ve got. I think I will suit the style the fans want to see and the way the manager wants to play.
“I know I’m more than good enough to play in this team. It was just a matter of waiting for a chance. I’ve always got self-belief. It does get knocked a few times but I have a good, balanced lifestyle. I keep my head, don’t get too down or too upbeat. Now I’ve made my debut I just want to kick on. It’s been a long time coming.
“To do it in an Edinburgh derby when we finished the game strongly means a lot to me. Getting a good reception from the fans meant a lot. It was quite emotional. I had a lot of adrenaline going through my body as I went on the pitch. It didn’t help that Hibs scored straight away after I went on. I was like: ‘Oh no. Here we go.’ I thought the three subs – myself, Macca and Olly Boz – made a great impact. When you get a pat on the back from your team-mates and the staff to say well done, it means everything. I’ve waited a long time for that chance and I feel I’ve taken it.”
The question every Hearts supporter is asking is: ‘Why did it take so long?’ Edwards was in danger of becoming the forgotten man; a man frightened he would be in and out of Hearts without an appaerance to his name or the chance to play competitively at Tynecastle. He detailed his chats with Levein and how they dictated the way his season unfolded.
“We had a conversation when I went out on loan to st Mirren. Circumstances weren’t in my favour: I was one of the first of 18 signings, we didn’t know if Arnaud Djoum was coming back from his Achilles injury, Peter Haring was a centre-back but then became a midfielder, Steven Naismith wasn’t signed, neither was Sean Clare. I kind of got pushed down the pecking order. I was told my attitude was really good, I was training well and playing well but I just wasn’t going to get as much game time as I would want.
“I came back from my loan and said to the manager: ‘I don’t want to be anywhere else. I want to play for you and play for this club. What can I do to get in the team?’ He said: ‘You never know, just keep working hard.’ As long as a manager gives you a small bit of hope, I’ll cling on to that hope.
“It’s been difficult but I’m really happy and grateful to be at this club. I’ve come in every day, put a smile on my face and worked hard. That’s my nature, not to be too down and just control what I can. I’ve been training every day, playing in the reserves and trying to impress as best I can. Since we won the Reserve Cup, I think I’ve put in a few performances at that level. It helps that the first team have a few injuries.”
The smile wasn’t always forced. Before kick-off in last week’s match with Rangers at Tynecastle, Edwards received a sarcastic standing ovation from unstripped colleagues behind the Hearts dugout as he took his seat among the substitutes for the first time since last July. It is all in good faith.
“A small part of me was thinking: ‘I’m better than that.’ I wanted to have played 30 or 40 games for Hearts this season – not making my debut in the 35th league game. I took it in the best way when I was walking over and all the boys were giving me a standing ovation. They are all really happy for me. They see what I do every day in training.
“It’s not the first time a player has been in this situation. Some get down and maybe show a bad attitude. Then the chance never comes and they are out the door. I haven’t done that. I’ve played over 100 times in the Premiership. I know I can play in this league for this club.”
In a brilliant twist of footballing irony, Edwards has gone from fearing he may never play for Hearts just a few weeks ago to contemplating an appearance in the Scottish Cup final.
“I have that opportunity and I can visualise that now. There would be nothing better than being involved in a cup final. I know it’s a long shot because I thought I wouldn’t play for this club this season, let alone in a cup final. I will just focus on getting more appearances between now and then. People will be coming back from injury and everyone wants to play in a cup final. I’m just going to do my best to try and be in that squad.
“Thinking back, the biggest thing for me when I went out on loan was: ‘I’m gutted here. I’m never going to play for Hearts at Tynecastle.’ When I was at Partick Thistle, it was my favourite stadium. For me, it’s the best stadium in Scotland. When you’re out on loan, you can’t play against your parent club so I was really disappointed. Then I came back in January and wasn’t involved. I was thinking I might never play for Hearts at Tynecastle.
“I thought I’d have to wait until next season to play for the first team. Or maybe be one of those guys who doesn’t make an appearance and then moves on. I’m fortunate I’ve got another year on my contract.”
Fate has handed Ryan Edwards a second chance. Don’t write him off just yet.