The reconciliation between Hearts and Ryan Stevenson was sealed with a goal yesterday as the Tynecastle club recorded a 2-0 victory over Aberdeen. Almost a year on from his controversial departure, the 28-year-old netted for the first time in maroon since his return from Ipswich Town, firing high beyond Jamie Langfield from the penalty spot after Ryan McGowan had been brought down by Josh Magennis in front of referee Euan Norris.
Callum Paterson added the second on 54 minutes, but it was the contribution of the man he replaced at the break due to a head knock who had proved crucial to kickstarting Hearts.
The display of affection by Stevenson following the opener was symbolic of his passion and commitment to the cause since he returned north, the forward racing to his supporters, proudly beating the crest on his sweat-soaked shirt.
"I was really pleased to get Ryan when he became available in the summer because of his attitude," said manager John McGlynn, whose side are now up to seventh in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League. "I'm delighted for him to get his first goal. He took it well, and it was unfortunate for him that he had to go off at half-time. I heard that he got man of the match for playing 45 minutes, so that's not bad."
Stevenson may have left Hearts due to a dispute over unpaid wages, but he proved his worth yesterday. The former Ayr United man typified the resilience of the Tynecastle side as they were put on the back foot in the first 15 minutes. The front trio of Niall McGinn, Cameron Smith and Johnny Hayes showed brief flashes of potential threat for Aberdeen, without every really firing on all cylinders, Hayes' high-and-wide right-foot shot from the edge of the area on five minutes the best they could muster.
Ultimately it was the home side's conviction that proved decisive. The midfield was bossed by Mehdi Taouil, Andrew Driver and Stevenson, who often left their opposite numbers chasing shadows under the Tynecastle floodlights.
As the game progressed Craig Brown's men looked increasingly nervous at the back in front of a healthy travelling support. On 19 minutes Langfield failed to hold a long McGowan throw-in before eventually doing enough to stop John Sutton scrambling it over the line.
That was followed by McGowan diving low to nod a Driver header just beyond the post, and it was little surprise that Hearts soon made the breakthrough on 31 minutes. As Driver swung in a corner from the right, Magennis was adjudged to have pulled down McGowan right in front of the referee. Stevenson stepped up to fire into the top left-hand corner.
Aberdeen did, as in the first half, start promisingly in the second period, but the game was effectively ended on 54 minutes, with the Pittodrie side once again shooting themselves in the foot. Hearts youngster Gordon Smith burst to the byeline before cutting back and slipping on the greasy surface. Fortunately for the 21-year-old so did Aberdeen left-back Joseph Shaughnessy, with Paterson latching on to Smith's lay-off to rifle in off the post from the edge of the area.
Aberdeen did enjoy a late flurry, with substitutes Rory Fallon, Jamie Masson and Declan McManus all passing up chances to haul their team back into a game that for most of the proceedings appeared out of reach.
The profligacy of his frontmen will offer no comfort to Brown as he comes to terms with the decision of Ryan Fraser not to re-sign for the club, with the Aberdeen manager feeling downbeat over the 18-year-old's decision.
"I spoke to him on Friday and he's a smashing wee guy, and he just said he wanted to leave it at the moment," said Brown, whose side travel to Motherwell on Tuesday for a William Hill Scottish Cup replay.
"I asked him if his agent had been affecting things and he said no. He's adamant it's not a question of money, so I don't know any more than that at the moment. There's nothing we can do. We would like to change his mind if possible, but he seems quite determined that he wants to go."
Brown added: "I thought it was an even game, we had three great chances in the second half. The three substitutes all could have scored. It's quite incredible that they all had a great chance. I could have run from the dugout and scored, even with bad knees."