With the financial downturn at Hearts comes an upturn in the fortunes of Jamie MacDonald.
The fate of the club’s crop of goalkeepers would seem to reflect the wider policy on the future of playing staff at Hearts: aiming to dispose of overseas players on higher-than-average wages and placing more emphasis on homegrown, more affordable talent.
MacDonald and Mark Ridgers, both educated at the club’s Riccarton academy, both signed deals in the last few days that tie them to Tynecastle until summer 2014.
Hungarian Janos Balogh ended his three-and-a-half year association with Hearts by leaving earlier this month, and the highly-regarded Slovakian Marian Kello is out of contract at the end of the current season and is widely expected to attract interest from bigger clubs.
So long the understudy, MacDonald at last would appear to be the favourite to claim the No. 1 shirt he has coveted since signing for the club in 2003.
In truth, the dream must have begun to circle around MacDonald’s head long before he signed from Musselburgh Athletic as a teenager, the Broxburn-born stopper having grown up as a Hearts fan. Nine or more years of patience and diligence seems to have finally paid off for the 25-year-old, who next season will face the uncharted pressure of heading the queue for the role of senior goalkeeper.
MacDonald will not only gratefully receive that responsibility – he will relish it, according to the manager who has placed more faith in the player than any other coach.
Gordon Chisholm was MacDonald’s manager during the most successful season of the player’s career to date, when Queens reached the Scottish Cup final in 2007-08 with the on-loan Hearts stopper between the sticks in every round en route to the final and in all but two games in the Doonhamers’ First Division campaign. In that single season with Chisholm as his boss, MacDonald made more appearances than he has done since returning to Hearts three-and-a-half years ago. Even now, the ex-Queens boss, who has been out of work since leaving Dundee in summer 2010, can vividly recall a young man determined and patient enough to wait for the chance to represent the team of his boyhood affections.
“He was always determined he would play for Hearts, and he’s not going to be type of boy to accept sitting on the bench – he’s not that type of character,” said Chisholm.
“It’s come to the time now that, in the next few years, he has to claim the No. 1 shirt. Maybe the financial situation at Hearts will allow that.
“At 25 now, he’s got to be looking to play football. I think if you asked him, he’ll be frustrated with how things have gone at Hearts. He has a fair bit of competition in Kello, but the best thing he can do is take his chance. He has to look to grab that No. 1 spot.
“He has shown great determination that that’s what he wants. He definitely wants to be at Hearts, and is not one to just pick up his money. Hearts have given him a new contract because they feel he’s getting to the stage where he’s going to be No. 1. He has never let them down, and needs a run in the team. I’m sure he’ll respond to that.”
Stevie Frail, Csaba Laszlo, Jim Jefferies and Paulo Sergio have all offered praised for MacDonald’s performances but, before long, invariably cast the player aside in favour of a higher- profile goalkeeper. But, by being offered a two-year contract at a time when Hearts are shedding first-team players at a regular rate, MacDonald seems to have been given a long-awaited vote of confidence. While Sergio, in common with his predecessors’ line of judgement, currently prefers Kello, MacDonald’s new deal is a mark of the respect the former Scotland under-21 player holds with the management and club hierarchy.
Beyond the end of the current season, MacDonald appears destined to vie for the position of first-team goalkeeper with Ridgers, the Scotland under-21 squad member who was on loan at East Fife earlier this season. The situation is far removed from that of this time last month, when MacDonald competed with two internationalists – a Slovakian and a Hungarian – to become the Jambos’ last line of defence.
Ridgers, 21, who impressed during his loan spell at Bayview earlier this season and who helped Scotland’s under-21 team to a win in Holland in November, will feel the need for his own career to develop – with first-team football at the forefront of his ambition. MacDonald, however, has this season posted five clean sheets in his seven appearances, including shut-outs against Tottenham at White Hart Lane and versus Celtic at Tynecastle. Given his experience and undoubted ability, the latter better fits the bill as successor to Kello.
“It’s good he signed that contract for security, but I know he’ll be so determined to be No. 1 at Hearts,” said Chisholm. “There’s stiff competition at the moment, but things are changing. He was a great boy to work with, trained hard and really concentrated, worked hard at his game. In the next couple of years, it’s make or break. He’s got to play regular football.
“Knowing the boy and having worked with him for a reasonable period of time, he’s got the ability to go and play SPL football on a regular basis.”
Chisholm secured the services of MacDonald through his friendship with then-Hearts boss Frail, a former team mate of Chisholm at Dundee. MacDonald, who has never hit double figures for league appearances in a single season at Hearts, may soon have to take the plunge into regular runs of first-team football. Faced with a similar, alien task at Queens, MacDonald embraced the challenge and excelled at competitive level.
“Given the difference when you’re playing reserves to coming in playing for win bonuses, I thought he adapted well,” said Chisholm. “There was no period where I was nervous about putting him in and wondering how he’d cope. His attitude and approach to the game was very professional.
“Every player needs an arm around the shoulder every now and then, especially a goalkeeper at a young age and especially when he makes a mistake. With a young boy you’re expecting him to just come in and learn from his mistakes, but he was pretty solid. He was constantly talking – I liked everything about him. His mum and dad came to every game and he knew it would further his career being at Queens. He was flung in and there are no options – you have to perform and, in fairness, he did. He has been patient at Hearts, but is still relatively young as a goalkeeper. That said, he knows he has to start playing regularly soon.”
The odds are, for once, in favour of MacDonald doing just that in the coming year.