BOYHOOD Hearts fan Billy King reckons his side can survive in the Scottish Premiership because they’ve got a solid core of diehard Jambos fighting “for the badge”.
While Hearts may be short of proven, experienced campaigners and handicapped by a 15-point penalty, their recent enforced streamlining has forced them to rely on those who really have the club at heart.
In Gary Locke, they have the only manager in the Scottish Premiership who used to watch his club from the stands as a kid. In addition, there can be few clubs in the country who have as many boyhood supporters in their first team, with Jason Holt, Jamie Walker, Brad McKay, Scott Robinson and King among those who grew up dreaming of one day pulling on the famous maroon jersey.
“Jamie Walker, Jason Holt, Brad McKay and me are all boyhood Hearts supporters and there are a few others,” explained 19-year-old King ahead of tomorrow’s trip to Dingwall to face Ross County. “It’s really good because we’re all playing for the club we love and I think that shows on the pitch when we’re trying to grind out results. It gives us an edge because we feel that wee bit extra passion and enthusiasm to play for the badge compared to some other teams who maybe don’t have as many local boys playing for them.”
King was last week described by John Robertson as one of the best finishers at the club. Born in 1994, the winger is too young to remember Robbo in his predatory striking days, but he’s heard enough about him from his father Joe to know that he is learning from the best possible teacher when Robbo turns up at Riccarton to take weekly training sessions with Hearts’ attackers. “It’s a high accolade for someone like John Robertson to say that about you,” he said.
“I’ve seen clips of him, but I don’t remember him as a player. My dad always used to talk about him and how he scored against the Hibs all the time. It’s a bit surreal that I’m getting coached by a guy my dad used to idolise. It’s brilliant that he’s coming in and giving us drills and tips. You get really good advice from him.”
King was this week encouraged by manager Gary Locke to be more ruthless in front of goal after failing to take a dig when the chance presented itself in his second start of the season against Celtic last weekend. He knows himself he needs to become more incisive and is ready to accept his boss’s challenge. “The manager’s right, I definitely need to start taking opportunities to shoot more,” he acknowledged. “Against Celtic in particular last week there was a chance in the first 15 minutes when I should have shot, but I tried to cut inside instead.
“Through the youth teams, I was a centre mid, so it’s in my nature to pass all the time. In recent years, I’ve been playing in more attacking positions, so I need to start getting more goals into my game. It’s a mindset thing. I need to get it in my head before each game that I’m going out to get a goal, so hopefully I’ll start shooting all the time. Hopefully once I get my first goal, more will come after that.”
King is hoping the number of Hearts fans featuring for the first team swells further in the coming months, with his younger brother Adam, 17, prospering in the Under-20 side and earning a place on the bench for the first team on three occasions this season. “My mum and dad would be really proud if Adam could get on as well and we both played in the first team together,” he said. “The McGowans [Ryan and Dylan] came through the Academy and played together in the first team, so hopefully we can do the same. It would be brilliant. Even though he’s younger, Adam’s bigger than me and more physical. He can play centre-back, right-back or centre-midfield, so he’s got the ability to play in a few positions.”
Billy and Adam aren’t the only Kings looking to make their way in football. There are another two younger siblings benefitting from their father’s infectious enthusiasm for the game. Ross, 15, is currently playing for Livingston’s Under-17s, while ten-year-old Robbie is playing for Hearts’ Under-11s.
“We’re a bit of a football family,” says Billy, a former Portobello High School pupil. “My dad didn’t play football, he just played with his pals, but he’s always been a big football man. He got us involved in it and took us all to training and stuff like that – he’s really enthusiastic. I’ve always had support from my mum and dad. All my family are Hearts fans as well so they’re always giving me tips and telling me what to do. My family are at all my games.
As if to underline just how young the current Hearts team is, King’s boyhood idols were a couple of Lithuanians who represented the club in the mid-Noughties. “I can’t really remember much from when I first started watching Hearts, but in the more recent years, I always liked [Deividas] Cesnauskis and [Saulius] Mikoliunas,” he recalls. “When Hearts had the two of them on the wing, it was quality. They were flying wingers.”
King is hoping to becoming a more established starter after sharing wing duties with David Smith this season. He is equally happy playing on the left or the right. “I think I’ve done alright since breaking into the first team, but I think my form has been better when I’ve come off the bench. If I get more starts, I think my form will get better when I start games. That’s what I’m working towards. There’s a few wingers at the club, so the manager’s able to rotate us. I don’t mind playing left or right. I’m quite happy switching sides during a game. I really don’t mind what side I play on.
King returns tomorrow to Victoria Park, the scene of only his second appearance for Hearts, when he learnt the hard way how ruthless first-team football can be. “We were close to winning and then I gave the ball away in the last minute and it went 2-2,” he recalls of that draw in the Highlands last February. “We played really well in that game and should have won it. I’ve learnt from my mistake and hopefully we can get three points this time.
“Because we’re such a young side, we’re always learning. People are going to mistakes but it’s about how well you bounce back from them.”