Hibs’ Lewis Stevenson on summer upheaval and how much he’ll miss Marvin Bartley
It’s an annual ritual at any football club, the summer exit of familiar faces balanced by the excitement and anticipation of supporters filling the void as they await the start of the new season by speculating on who the new arrivals might be.
The coming weeks will be full of all sorts of rumour and gossip, some of it informed and pretty much spot on – but much will be more fans giving vent to a wish-list of signings they’d like to see.
And there’s certain to be plenty of it swirling around Easter Road following the revelation that 13 first team players – the most notable of which was midfield enforcer Marvin Bartley – have headed for the exit door along with four of the development squad.
Many of the departures were anticipated, players such as Marc McNulty, Stephane Omeonga, Adam Bogdan, Ryan Gauld, Thomas Agyepong and Darnell Johnson coming to the end of their loan spells, while head coach Paul Heckingbottom made the tough call to cut short Aussie veteran Mark Milligan’s stay in Edinburgh.
Miquel Nelom, Jonathan Spector and Gael Birigimana also left having rarely featured along with goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw and striker Lewis Allan, released at the end of their contracts.
Heckingbottom hopes both McNulty and Omeonga may return to pull on a green-and-white jersey again, but even so it is clear there’s plenty of scope for the former Barnsley and Leeds United boss to fashion a squad which will be very much his own having impressed with the players he inherited from Neil Lennon, taking them from eighth place and in danger of dropping further, to a top six finish.
It’s a scenario Lewis Stevenson, Hibs’ longest-serving player, has witnessed in each of his 14 years as a first-team regular, watching players come and go. In that time Stevenson has played alongside an astonishing 200 others, some of whom fans will struggle to remember their names, while many will live long in the memory.
“It’s never nice to see people go,” admitted the little defender, “It’s part and parcel of football but the club will always be the club. It’s only people who move on and I know that one day it will be me, although I’ve still got a couple of years to go.”
The final game of the season being at home allowed many emotional goodbyes to be said as the players gathered on the pitch following the defeat by Aberdeen, with more private farewells exchanged in the dressing room.
“It’s going to be a strange dressing room without big Marv,” revealed Stevenson. “He’s been a big part of things for the past four years, a great servant to the club. It was a real shock to learn he was moving on to Livingston next season.
“He kept everything very close to his chest and you can understand why he wasn’t keen to talk about it. But you could see from the reception he got how much the fans love him.
“It did get all a bit emotional in the dressing room. You wouldn’t think looking at Marv that he’d be like that, but you could see how much it meant to him out their on the pitch and afterwards he was getting all sorts of stuff signed by the rest of the boys.
“Millsy had only been here this season, such a professional who has played at the top level, at four World Cup finals and someone with so many caps for Australia, but he loved this club and gave everything for it.
“It is sad to see guys you’ve worked with every day and who’ve become friends leave but, at the same time everyone starts looking to see who the gaffer will be bringing in. I’m sure there will be plenty of changes. I’m not sure how things are going to pan out with Sparky and Stephie, but we’ll look forward to welcoming the new arrivals.”
And Stevenson, who clocked up his 450th game for Hibs at the weekend, insisted whoever comes in will find a dressing room hungry to improve on the season which has just come to a close.
He said: “One way of looking at it is that finishing fifth isn’t bad considering where we were around Christmas time, but on the other hand, we’re disappointed not to have finished higher.
“We had that great run when the new gaffer came in, but things just petered out for us in the last few games. It’s the first time in a few seasons we haven’t had anything to play for right at the end, so perhaps that’s a mentality sort of thing we need to change.
“It was disappointing to end the season with a defeat, but I don’t think you could fault anyone’s commitment against Aberdeen. We gave it everything, but there’s been that bit of slackness in our play this season, while Aberdeen have perhaps been a bit more savvy and that’s the reason why they’ve finished above us.
“Ironically, Sunday was probably the best we have played in weeks. We wanted to finish the season on a high and in the first half especially I thought we showed we can compete at the top.”
Although, ultimately, 13 points separated Hibs from the Dons and Kilmarnock – who took third place in the Premiership table on goal difference – Stevenson insisted that gulf wasn’t a true reflection on the gap between the clubs.
The 31-year-old said: “I think other than that poor performance at Rugby Park, all the games we’ve had with both Kilmarnock and Aberdeen have been tight. There’s not been a lot between us in any of our matches, rarely more than a single goal.
“Look at the league games with Aberdeen, we lost three times to them but on each occasion it was only by one goal and all four could quite easily have gone either way, while it took penalties for them to win the League Cup tie.
“It was pretty much the same story against Kilmarnock and that has probably been the difference in both of them finishing above us.
“It’s those little things that can make a big difference over the course of a season and something we have to look to turn around in our favour next time.”