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Stevenson aware of what lies beneath the top flight

BRING on the Rangers.

Ryan Stevenson acknowledges that Hearts will not be given an easy ride next season as his side chases promotion from the Championship. Picture: SNS
Ryan Stevenson acknowledges that Hearts will not be given an easy ride next season as his side chases promotion from the Championship. Picture: SNS

Ryan Stevenson heard the chant sound out around Gorgie on Sunday afternoon as Hearts, relegated yet resurgent, powered their way to a five-goal win over Kilmarnock. He appreciates fully the sense of anticipation among his side's supporters over the prospect of a mouth-watering head-to-head with the Ibrox club in the SPFL Championship next season.

Confessing to a degree of bias, the midfielder has already predicted that league will be the most exciting in the land, with the possibility of Kilmarnock or maybe even Hibs dropping into it through the play-offs still very real indeed.

The 29-year-old has a warning born from a tough, uncompromising upbringing in the game, though. A warning that should be heeded by the players and supporters of Rangers every bit as much as those in his own Tynecastle parish.

Stevenson learned his trade in the first and second divisions with St Johnstone and Ayr United. They are hard leagues full of hard knocks from hard men. It is possible to argue that the glamour of the Premiership has faded somewhat in recent seasons, but the division below that can be another world entirely.

It is likely to be a culture shock for the younger lads at hearts, brought up in the relative comfort of the academy set-up at Riccarton, who have performed so admirably under their manager, Gary Locke, in putting together a recent record of five victories in six league games.

However, the players assembled by Ally McCoist in Glasgow are likely to have their eyes opened too. The current Rangers squad have become accustomed to touring around unappealing outposts over the past two years, but they are about to face a greater level of competition and plenty of nights where nothing other than toughing it out will get them through.

It may well end up a straight scrap between Rangers and Hearts for the title, but Stevenson has warned everyone attached to both clubs to get themselves ready for an altogether wider dogfight.

"I think the silver lining from being relegated is that it is going to be a good league next year," said Stevenson. "Dunfermline will be favourites to come up [from League 1] through the play-offs, so having them there as well would mean it is going to be good.

"We are under no illusions, though. I have been in those divisions and I know how hard they are to get out of. It's not going to be as easy as everyone thinks with Rangers and Hearts first and second. There will be hard games.

"I know first-hand that going to Dumbarton and Alloa on a Wednesday night isn't easy. I spent years at that level. You kind of ride the wave in the Premiership, going to big stadiums. It will be a different sort of atmosphere next season.

"There are a lot of experienced players down there and a lot of good players too. A lot of people assume it will just be Rangers and Hearts going for the title, but it will be up to us and Rangers to perform week in, week out and I would imagine there will be a lot more pressure.

"As bad as it is for us, it's good for Scottish football that Rangers will be with us in the Championship next year. I'll be biased and say it will be more exciting than the Premiership - and the Premiership this season has been brilliant."

Stevenson has made it clear already that he wants Locke to be assured of his position by incoming chairperson Ann Budge and believes the Hearts manager knows how to handle the particular difficulties that next season will bring.

"We'll need to win every single week and the manager will know that," said Stevenson. "If the manager can put his stamp on the team and bring in good players, we are more than capable of winning.

"A lot of people will say the younger boys are playing more freely now the pressure's off, but there are still 14,000 fans coming who have had a long, hard season. The pressure is still there.

"I truly believe that we have grown as a squad. We learned through the Christmas period and the tough times we had and I hope we can take that on to next season."

Hearts showed their qualities in dismantling Kilmarnock. Stevenson, of course, is an Ayr supporter and has admitted that scoring a hat trick - the first in senior football - is the highlight of his career.

"That probably ranks as my best moment because, being an Ayr supporter, I have taken a bit of stick down the years from the Kilmarnock fans," he said with a smile.

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