O F all the personal narratives which will converge at Hampden Park on Sunday, few are more diverting than that of Ryan Stevenson.
The 28-year-old craves the chance to contribute to Hearts' first League Cup win in over half a century as much to compensate for declining the place in posterity which could have been his last May.
Having eventually snapped over the incessant late payment of wages and threatened to go on strike until the club met its obligations in full, Stevenson duly jumped ship for Ipswich Town last January and still finds himself burdened with occasional regrets that he was merely a bystander while his former team-mates acquired the status of legends with a 5-1 William Hill Scottish Cup final win against Hibernian.
Loading article content
"I felt at the time it was probably the right decision for me to make," said Stevenson, who rejoined the club this summer after ripping up the remaining year of his deal at Portman Road. "But to be sitting in the stands watching your mates on such a historic day . . . it was sad not to be part of that. Any footballer would have cut off their right hand to be involved in that.
"I don't think that can ever be beaten. To beat your local rivals 5-1 in a Scottish Cup final probably won't happen again. These boys are legends and so they should be. It was an amazing day but there was a part of you sitting there thinking 'I could have been part of that'. Even today, you still sort of regret not being part of it – although I don't regret the situation, which has probably turned out for the best. I don't want to talk about it too much in case it falls flat on my face, but hopefully come Sunday night I have created my own bit of history and got my own winners' medal."
The trauma of missing out on your apparent destiny gives Stevenson a sense of kinship with his former manager. It was John McGlynn who steered this Hearts team to Hampden, and Stevenson for one will remember his contribution come win, lose or draw. "The day he came in to tell us he was leaving was one of the saddest of my career," said Stevenson, of the man who offered him an escape route from East Anglia this summer. "I know how much he put into this club. I know how made up he was that he was going to be leading the boys out at Hampden. This wouldn't just be the biggest day of my career, it would have been the biggest of his career, too, I would imagine. So for it to be taken away a couple of weeks before . . . I don't know how he must feel. He'll be in all of our thoughts before the game and, I'm sure, after it."
When Stevenson says things have probably turned out for the best, he doesn't mean that the club's financial travails are over. What he does mean is that the club have smartened up their act in terms of keeping the staff abreast of developments. The players have responded in kind by ignoring all the turmoil to give them a rare chance of back-to-back trophy wins. "It has worked out for the best because this year the club as a whole has tackled the problem head-on, face first," the midfielder said. "All we wanted the previous year was everyone to be honest. And that is what we have this year. Everyone knows where we stand and everyone is galvanised.
"It has not been the greatest time for us in the league but Sunday gives us a wee outlet. Going to two finals in two years is good, but I don't think it should be out of the ordinary for this club; we're a big enough club that we should be doing that. But to win back-to-back cups would be a great achievement in the circumstances."
Sunday will be Stevenson's first major final, but he is one of the more experienced figures in this Hearts side. His return south, having begun his career at Chelsea, might not have worked out as planned but Stevenson has a three-year deal and hopes to be here for the long haul. "Ipswich are a great club and I made a lot of good friends," he said. "And the Championship is a great league to be part of, but it just wasn't for me and my family.
"I was just happy I could come back. I've signed a long contract and I've made it clear that I want to be here. A lot of people have fond memories of me at Ayr United. And when I do leave here eventually, when I retire, I want people to say 'he did well for the club'. But the only way that can happen is if you win things."
That only left one last issue: in the event of victory is there still an ink-free space on that body to squeeze in a celebratory tattoo? "My missus wouldn't let me, I don't think," he joked.