Lewis Stevenson crept into Tony Mowbray’s plans almost unnoticed, a callow 17-year-old lost amid the galaxy of bright young stars who were then making everyone sit up and take notice.
Today, ten years on, Stevenson continues to operate under the radar, rarely causing a ripple, far less hogging a headline, and yet he’s become Hibs’ longest serving player, one who now stands 50th in terms of first team appearances out of the total of 1179 who have pulled on a green-andwhite jersey as the Easter Road club approaches it’s 140th anniversary early next month.
While the likes of Garry O’Connor and Derek Riordan, with whom he shared a dressing-room way back then, have all but disappeared from view, the little man from Kirkcaldy soldiers on, delighted with a new two-year deal and more than happy to let others bask in the spotlight despite his standing now as a truly senior pro.
“I’ve not changed much at all since I first came in,” insisted Stevenson. “I’m never going to be the main character in the dressing-room. I just go about my own business and it seems to have stood me in good stead so far.”
Even with 267 appearances under his belt, 87 of them made in the past two seasons, the 27-year-old insists he doesn’t take his place for granted, but at the same time hoping there’s “plenty more to come”.
Should Stevenson amass as many outings during his current contract, he’ll find himself passing the 350 mark, leaving such luminaries in the club’s history as Des Bremner, John Brownlie, Peter Cormack, Davie Shaw, John Fraser, Jimmy O’Rourke and Tommy Preston, to mention but a few, in his wake.
Even then, though, he’d fall far short of the records of Gordon Smith and Pat Stanton, both with in excess of 600 first team matches to their name, and others like Eddie Turnbull, Arthur Duncan, Gordon Rae, Erich Schaedler and Willie Ormond.
Nevertheless, Stevenson confessed to being thrilled to find himself making his own little mark in Hibs’ history.
“I could never have imagined it, not at all,” he said, “It’s very flattering and I feel privileged to have been at a club like Hibs for so many games. I could never have thought when I first broke through that would happen. I’m delighted.
“I’ve overtaken a lot of guys who were big names with Hibs down through the years but it’s different now – perhaps we play more games than they did in a season. I’m not anywhere near the likes of Gordon Smith or Pat Stanton and I probably won’t manage that, but I’d like to think there are still a few more games left in me.
“To be honest, it only seems like yesterday I was breaking through. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it – well, 90 per cent anyway – but while it’s nice to be involved the gaffer has said you need to be playing well or he’ll change the team.
“We’ve got a big squad and I know young Callum Crane is behind me and in the years to come he’s going to play a lot of games for Hibs, so it’s going to be tough to cement a place.”
While Stevenson is more than happy to lend his experience to any of the youngsters hoping to follow in his footsteps, he still recalls his own first tentative steps, joining Mowbray’s squad for a pre-season trip to the Republic of Ireland.
He said: “I’d been at the club a couple of years but had just gone full-time a week before. Tony and Mark Venus must have liked what they’d seen of me and decided to take me. It was a bit of a surprise – my first time away with the first team and a bit daunting when you look at some of the players in the squad at the time.
“David Murphy was struggling with an injury at the time and I went along as back-up. I remember my first game being against St Pat’s in Dublin and Garry O’Connor scoring a hat-trick. Michael Stewart and Zibi Malkowski also played for the first time for us that night.
“Obviously I was a bit nervous, but to get my chance was fantastic and I think I did all right over there.”
A full debut in a League Cup tie against Ayr United at Somerset Park was to follow, a night on which Riordan scored both of Hibs goals, which begs the question as to why Stevenson believes he still commands a first-team place when both “Deeks” and O’Connor, having moved on by the to Celtic and Dynamo Moscow respectively, before briefly returning to Easter Road find themselves, but distant memories at a time when many would have thought they’d be at the peak of their careers.
“We’ve followed very different paths,” he conceded, “They’ve had big highs and probably made good money, Garry going abroad and Derek to Celtic. For me, it’s been slow and steady, but I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.
“Last season was one of the most enjoyable I’ve had – it does help when you are enjoying your football so much. The team spirit we have under the gaffer and his staff makes it enjoyable for everyone and I think that shows when you play.”
Having said that, Stevenson agrees that he perhaps divides opinion among the fans, his wonderful sense of self-deprecating humour leading him to observe a couple of years ago when he was named player of the year by the Hibs Supporters Association that it must have been a pretty poor season.
Even today he observes: “I suppose there must have been some out there who voted for me, but everyone I spoke to said they hadn’t.”
Stevenson, however, is too long in the tooth to let any criticism get to him, content with his role within the team and aware that strikers scoring goals and new signings are always more likely to become fans’ favourites than someone who appears to be “in with the bricks”.
He said: “Everyone has their own opinion. I had mine when I was young and watching football. It’s easy to criticise and I know I’m not someone who stands out and is going to catch they eye.
“It doesn’t bother me any more. I have my job within the team and I think people who know football feel I do a decent job or I wouldn’t have played so many games under seven different managers.”
With each game he plays, Stevenson will slowly climb the table in terms of appearances, possibly finding a position in the rankings which might never be surpassed given the tendency in today’s games for players to spend far shorter periods at clubs than in years gone by.
Again, though, he’s taking nothing for granted. He said: “Paul Hanlon is right behind me, breathing down my neck and he’s only 24, so he has every chance of overtaking me at some point.
“But I’m just delighted to, it’s a great achievement, one I’m really proud of but, as I’ve said, hopefully there’s more to come.
“I’ll be 29 when this contract ends but I’d love to be here as long as possible.”