Since beginning the process of making the Hibs left-back berth his own under Alan Stubbs just more than four years ago, Lewis Stevenson has seen off several team-mates and rivals for his position.
A stalwart figure for his club over the past decade, the 30-year-old has routinely blocked the way into the starting XI for deputy left-backs like Callum Booth, Adam Eckersley, Faycal Rherras and Callum Crane in each of the past four seasons. Remarkably, Eckersley, Rherras and Crane were able to amass only two substitute appearances between them before moving on. Similarly, Sean Mackie, the club’s highly-regarded 19-year-old left-back, has been unable to add to his game time since being given a two-minute debut cameo at home to Raith Rovers 17 months ago.
Aside from a brief period early last season when Stevenson was replaced for three consecutive games by Steven Whittaker after a slack day at the office in a home defeat by Hamilton Accies, no-one has come close to ousting him from a position he has occupied almost exclusively since Ryan McGivern vacated the building after the club’s relegation in 2014.
Following that rare three-game run on the sidelines, Stevenson was restored for the 3-2 League Cup quarter-final win at home Livingston a year ago this week, and has remained there ever since, starting every one of Hibs’ last 47 competitive matches. As left-back, or left-wing-back as has been the case for much of the past few years, the one-club man has become something of an immovable object with all his.
His staying power is about to face a fresh and perhaps more daunting test, however, in the shape of Miquel Nelom. The 27-year-old free agent, inset, is expected to be confirmed today as Hibs’ latest signing and he checks in boasting a CV that marks him out as something of a coup for the club. He has spent the past seven years with Dutch heavyweights Feyenoord, accumulating more than 150 appearances for the Rotterdam club, the majority of which came as a starter.
Although it would be stretching a point to suggest he was a mainstay for Feyenoord, he did start 12 matches and appeared in another five as Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s team won the Eredivisie two seasons ago for the first time in 18 years. Last September, Nelom started for Feyenoord in a 4-0 defeat at home by Manchester City in their opening game of the Champions League group stage. He was an unused substitute for the remainder of their European games and gradually became a more peripheral figure before being loaned to city rivals Sparta for the second half of last season.
Five years ago, Nelom won two caps for the Netherlands in friendly matches. Still in his prime age-wise, he is clearly a couple of notches up in pedigree compared to the likes of Eckersley and Rherras. The fact he boasts 80,000 twitter followers – 5000 more than his new club’s official account – gives further indication of his status in his homeland.
Recruited as both competition and cover for Stevenson, Hibs stand to benefit however Nelom’s arrival plays out. If it transpires that Stevenson is still the first-choice left-back by the end of the season, then it will probably mean he has kept his game at a high standard, stayed injury-free (as he always tends to do) and proven himself a better option than the incoming Dutchman. Similarly, if Nelom takes possession of the left-back slot in the coming months, then it will be because he has shown himself to be an upgrade on a man who has performed impressively throughout his team’s post-relegation resurgence.
In bidding to see off his latest challenger, Stevenson can take heart from the exploits of captain David Gray. Just over a year ago, the long-standing right-back encountered fresh competition for his position when Lennon recruited Whittaker on a three-year contract. Although the last campaign became a frustrating one for Gray as he had to battle with Whittaker and Martin Boyle for a starting place before being struck down by injury, he has responded in determined fashion and restored his claims to the right-back berth by starting this season as one of his team’s strongest performers.
There is similar competition for places in most other areas of the squad. At centre-back, for instance, the established trio of Efe Ambrose, Paul Hanlon and Darren McGregor are no longer guaranteed starters with the burgeoning Ryan Porteous making his presence felt. Similarly, Ofir Marciano, the No.1 of the past two seasons, will have to find a way past on-loan Liverpool goalkeeper Adam Bogdan.
While Stevenson has not ever let him down over the past two years, Lennon clearly wants a similarly intense battle for places developing in the left-back area. While Stevenson will understandably be wary of this new threat to his position, he has been around senior football long enough to understand the reasoning behind such a squad-bolstering move.
If past evidence is anything to go by, chances are he will rise to the challenge.