Confidence is unlikely to desert Brad McKay any time soon. Tomorrow, he faces a Celtic team aiming to set a new Scottish and UK record for the number of minutes without conceding a league goal.
McKay’s response to that is typically bullish.
“I’d love to be the one to spoil it, even if I do say so myself. I’d love to bring it to and end.”
So, those in attendance at Tynecastle can expect to see McKay venture forward from central defence anytime Hearts are awarded a corner or a free-kick?
“I might even take a few free-kicks myself,” he smiled. “I’ve said to a few of my pals that I’d love to be the one to end Celtic’s record. You don’t like to be the team playing when a team sets a new record like that. It’s the same as playing when a team wins the title against you.”
Celtic’s Fraser Forster is just 31 minutes shy of former Aberdeen goalkeeper Bobby Clark’s 43-year-old Scottish record of 1,155 minutes without conceding a league goal. He is also just 87 minutes away from Edwin van der Sar’s British record.
Both of those could fall in Edinburgh tomorrow, although McKay has plenty to say on how Celtic should be dealt with.
“A lot of teams prepare for Celtic by getting behind the ball, plugging holes and trying to stop them playing,” he said. “Teams tend to sit off them and I’m not sure that’s always the way to go about it against Celtic. I’ve played against them a few times now and I’d rather see teams going up against them and not letting them play from the back.
“Celtic will hurt any team when they get to play from the back because that’s when they find holes and spaces. When you let the back four and the midfield play, that’s when they will damage teams. A lot of teams prepare to get behind the ball. Eventually they do break you down and you might lose 1-0 or 2-0, but I don’t see the point in losing 2-0 if you’re going to prepare for that.
“I’d rather go for it and try to get a result against them. That’s what we did the first time we played them this season at Tynecastle, when we lost 3-1. It’s not just Hearts, I’d say teams from all over should be going for it. Not because of this record they have, but because you’re playing Celtic and they’re a difficult team to beat. There’s no point sitting off them and not even getting one chance in the game.”
Neil Lennon’s side picked Hearts apart on their last visit to Tynecastle with a 7-0 win in the Scottish Cup fourth round at the start of December. The following week they thumped Motherwell 5-0 at Fir Park to begin this incredible league run which leaves Forster on the brink of history. Recently, however, a chink of vulnerability has been detected. Aberdeen’s 2-1 win at Celtic Park two weeks ago in the Scottish Cup fifth round indicated that the league champions are not, despite some proclamations, invincible.
“We need to test them defensively because I don’t think they’re getting tested enough against teams in this league,” continued McKay with another bold statement. “Aberdeen tested them in the cup the other week and they failed the test. I think they need to be tested a little bit more.
“I didn’t watch the Aberdeen game, but I heard they were at Celtic all the time and never gave them a minute’s peace. I think that’s the way to go about it against Celtic. Get in about them and go up against them. Don’t sit off them and let them play.”
Forster’s performances and shutouts have led to some calls for him to be installed as England’s first-choice goalkeeper ahead of this summer’s World Cup. McKay has noticed the work of others around him, though.
“It’s an incredible record and it’s not just down to the goalkeeper, it’s the defence as well. Celtic have a great defence. When I played against them before I noticed what a good player big [Virgil] Van Dijk is. It’s some record that they’ve put together and credit to them for that.”
For Hearts, who welcome back Callum Paterson and Kevin McHattie from suspension, it will be important to write off the 7-0 result and look to the game with Celtic last September when they gave a much better account of themselves. McKay played that day and in the subsequent cup demolition and is eager to focus on some positives before taking the field tomorrow.
“Celtic conceded in the 3-1 game at Tynecastle so it shows we can score against them,” he said. “We competed with them that day so we’ve shown we can stand up to them. They scored two goals in the second half that day and the third one was late on, so we showed we can compete against Celtic.”
Hearts’ own form recently offers further encouragement. They approach this weekend on the back of two wins and two draws in their last four league games. Their momentum was interrupted by defeat on penalties in the League Cup semi-final against Inverness Caledonian Thistle, but last week’s goalless draw against the same opponents restored a modicum of pride those involved. “We’re unbeaten in four in the league now so that’s a good record of our own that we want to keep going,” explained McKay.
“We’ve been defending a lot better. On another day, we might have nicked a win at Inverness last week because we had a few scoring chances ourselves in the second half.”
Perhaps the recent upturn is down to the Tynecastle youngsters in whom Gary Locke has had to place so much faith learning more about first-team requirements. McKay certainly feels he is developing on a personal note.
“I’ve stayed in the team over the last few weeks and I’m happy with my progress. I’ve learned a lot this season. I’ve learned that off-the-field matters need to be left off the field. When you’re playing, you need to be purely focused on that. What goes on off the park should be kept off the park and that’s been a big thing for me to learn over the last few months.”