Lewis Stevenson had no qualms about being asked to play as a makeshift centre-half after Hibs boss Neil Lennon’s pep talk left the defender feeling ten feet tall.
Stevenson answered Lennon’s SOS call after injuries robbed him of both Darren McGregor and Paul Hanlon for the trip to face Rangers, lining up alongside 18-year-old Ryan Porteous and Efe Ambrose at Ibrox.
While many feared the worst, Lennon’s faith was repaid in style, the Capital outfit pulling off a second win of the season in Govan to keep their grip on fourth place in the Premiership.
Now, while not expecting to be pressed into emergency cover again for the visit of Aberdeen on Saturday, with both McGregor and Hanlon set to return to action, Stevenson admitted he wouldn’t have the slightest worry if asked again.
Jokingly asking if his height could be “rounded up to 5ft 8in”, the club’s longest-serving player said: “I’m not the tallest left-back far less centre-half. But I knew ahead of the Rangers game that we were struggling a bit at the back with David Gray and Steven Whittaker also out.
“The manager had a word with me and told me of his intentions. He’s an unbelievable motivator – he left me feeling ten feet tall. I went out full of confidence that we weren’t going to get turned over by Rangers.
“Young Ryan alongside me was fantastic. I think to everyone he must have seemed a lot older than 18 given his performance. He took the game in his stride, nothing fazed him.
“Ryan is going to have a massive future although he probably feels a bit frustrated at the minute because he has Paul and Darren ahead of him, two guys who have been fantastic at centre-half as has Efe – they’ve been the bedrock of the team.
“However, Ryan is very level-headed, he’ll realise the situation and continue to work hard in training and be ready to make the step up when the chance arises.”
Hibs have lost both games with Aberdeen this season, going down narrowly at Easter Road before coming off decidedly second best at Pittodrie, beaten 4-1 with Gary Mackay-Steven, the scorer of the only goal in the first match, grabbing a hat-trick.
That thumping came at the end of a tough week for Lennon’s players – it was their third match in just six days from which they’d taken only a point. At that stage, it looked as if what had been a highly promising season might be beginning to tail off for a team newly returned to the top flight after three years in the Championship.
But Hibs bounced back with a win over Ross County and draws against Hearts and Kilmarnock before the winter break, returning to shake off the disappointment of losing to their Gorgie rivals in the Scottish Cup to win three of their last four league games.
A consequence of being knocked out of the cup was an idle weekend but, insisted Stevenson, that unwanted break had brought benefits, not least the likelihood of McGregor and Hanlon returning to action.
He said: “It was a strange weekend because it’s been quite a while since we haven’t progressed to the latter stages of the cup but it came at a good time because the injuries were piling up.
“Saturday is a huge game for us. We played all right at home to Aberdeen but at Pittodrie they were by far the batter team. There were no excuses.
“Yes, we’d had a tough run of games but I’m sure they had just as difficult a round of fixtures. To be honest, it was probably our worst performance of the season and I am sure we will be better all round come the weekend.
“We seem to have come back into a bit of form since the winter break. It’s been decent. Of course, no-one wanted to go out of the cup. It was a game which could have gone either way, one which I thought neither side really deserved to win.
“Since then, we’ve beaten Dundee, Motherwell and Rangers while we could also have taken something from Celtic Park. But the main thing has been picking up points. We want to keep that going as long as possible.”
Admitting it was vital he and his team-mates don’t allow Aberdeen to stretch their advantage to 11 points, Stevenson was adamant Lennon’s players will not be content to settle for fourth place but to do everything in their power to try to reel in both Rangers and Aberdeen.
And he believes Lennon’s squad has the strength in depth to go the distance, saying: “I don’t think we’ve been cut adrift from Aberdeen or Rangers, we still have a chance to catch them although obviously that’s going to be difficult.
“They have strong squads and are established Premiership sides. However, the manager doesn’t want us to be just cutting about in the middle of the table, he wants us to be competitive and to keep pushing as high as we possibly can.
“We’ve given ourselves a decent platform to try to do that. I think everyone will be wanting to get as many points as possible before the split because afterwards it’s the top teams playing against each other when wins become all the more difficult to get.
“But we’ve strength in depth throughout the squad. We’ve got plenty of experience at the back and in the middle of the park we’re really strong with guys like Marvin Bartley, John McGinn, Dylan McGeouch and now Scott Allan in there.
“Scott’s come back and looked as if he’s never been away. A few of us obviously know what he is capable of having played with him before and we saw that at Ibrox especially in the first half when he was the best player on the park.
“Florian Kamberi has come in and scored on his debut and Jamie Maclaren showed great faith in himself to take that winning penalty at Ibrox.
“There’s a lot of big games coming up, starting on Saturday and. although people will say we’ve done well this season. we want to be higher still.”