HIS club is in administration and 11 points adrift at the bottom of the league, yet Brad McKay has been bursting with pride for weeks. He is living the dream, his very own dream, playing for his childhood heroes and earning international recognition. He’s even managed to fit in an Edinburgh derby win to complement the satisfaction.
The Hearts defender’s learning curve has been steep. To date he has just five senior appearances to his name, but has been a first-choice beside Danny Wilson in central defence since pre-season. At 20, he has been fast-tracked from the Riccarton youth academy to Gary Locke’s first team and, in some ways, is still finding his feet.
Yet emotionally he is more comfortable than ever. This is what McKay wanted since first laying his head on a pillow as a kid dreaming of starring at Tynecastle. Even Hearts’ well-documented travails as they attempt to recover from their financial collapse can’t detract from the pleasure he felt beating Hibs, playing for Scotland Under-21s, and establishing himself in the Scottish Premiership.
“I was a latecomer to Hearts [he joined aged 17 from Edinburgh City] and, like everyone else, I’ve put a lot of hard work in. Everyone who is getting a chance deserves it,” said McKay. “I think a lot of people know that playing centre-back or goalkeeper are difficult positions to break into when you’re young. Sometimes you need to wait and be patient and that’s difficult when you see all your mates doing well and getting rewards.
“It takes injuries and, for me, it’s taken people to lose their jobs to get a chance. I’m a massive Hearts fan and I’ll take my opportunity however it comes. If I’m in that team, I’m playing for the jersey. A lot of people don’t get the chance I’ve got now. Especially being a Hearts fan as well, it’s massive for me to get this opportunity.
“The circumstances aren’t great because a lot of good players have had to go, but sometimes in football you’ve got to be selfish and think for yourself. For me to stay in the team, I’ve got to think of myself.
“If you play at the same level all the time, sometimes you don’t get benefits from it. If you’re playing under-19s or under-20s, you sometimes need a bigger challenge. Going on loan to Stenhousemuir last year was a good experience for me. I almost went on loan to Hamilton as well, but that fell through. I would’ve looked forward to that because I wasn’t getting a chance in the first team here at that time.”
The situation has changed dramatically since Hearts entered administration in June. McKay and Wilson have underpinned a defence which conceded only once from open play in Hearts’ first three league matches. The highlight of the season’s opening fixtures for McKay was unquestionably the 1-0 win over Hibs a week past Sunday – a day when all his dreams seemed to come true at once in front of everyone closest to him.
“It’s everything I worked hard for and everything you dream of as a young lad – to play against Hibs and win,” he explained. “When you’re in the stand, you see it and you feel it and you wonder what it feels like on the pitch. When you’re young, you think, ‘I’d love to do that’. I can tell every Hearts fan out there who looks at that pitch and wonders how it feels that it’s very special. You would never believe how it feels.
“All my pals were at the game, as was my wee brother, but I didn’t know where they were sitting. I had other pals and family watching on TV as well so I knew everyone was looking in. It was a great feeling to beat them. It was only 1-0 and Hearts have beaten Hibs by bigger margins than that. I don’t know why it felt so special. Maybe the situation we’re in now and the backing of the fans.
“Sometimes you get a moan or a groan if somebody hasn’t done so well, but every time the ball went out of play, or a tackle went in, or a tackle was missed, our fans were up on their feet. When we scored it was an incredible feeling. Everyone was running about daft.”
Ross County are the nearest team to Hearts in the current Premiership table. They have lost all three of their opening fixtures and are without a point. Ahead of the Highlanders, St Mirren and Hibs both have one point and McKay is aware of the inner-city rivalry and ribbing going on in Edinburgh at the moment with regards to league positions.
“You know what it’s like – you beat Hibs and all the Hearts fans are going on about it and all the Hibs fans are worrying and scared. It is not a priority to catch Hibs or worry about Hibs, it is to get as many points on the board as we can and get in contention to stay in this league.”
The morning after celebrating that derby success, McKay headed south with the Scotland Under-21 squad to face England at Bramall Lane. Having never represented his country at any level before, he was not expecting to start the match. However, coach Billy Stark gave him a valuable 90 minutes in a game England won 6-0.
“I actually didn’t know I’d been called up. Someone I’d gone to school with had tweeted me saying congratulations on the call-up. I didn’t have a clue about it. I checked online and saw I had been called up to the Scotland Under-21 squad and it was an honour for me.
“It was against England and there were 27,000 fans there. Every game is a learning curve whether you win or lose. The result wasn’t great but to play against these players and then watch them scoring on Match of Day a few days later was fantastic.
“Any 90-minute game you play is valuable, especially if you’re in defence. You learn from every game.”
Learning and progressing has been McKay’s aim all along. He’s had to wait whilst other, sometimes younger, players gained first-team recognition at Hearts before him. The patience is now paying off.