Brad McKay: Hearts are getting their core values back

Christophe Berra, Michael Smith and Aaron Hughes are part of a British core developing at Hearts. Pic: SNS
Christophe Berra, Michael Smith and Aaron Hughes are part of a British core developing at Hearts. Pic: SNS
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Knowing what it means to play for Hearts has been a thorny issue around Tynecastle recently.

A raft of dainty foreign players left after the insipid end to last season, and the summer recruitment drive centres around restoring a Scottish and British core to Ian Cathro’s team.

“We are going to try and fix the middle part of the team and try and get a bit more of a Scottish or a British base,” explained director of football Craig Levein in his end-of-season address. Signs so far are promising.

Scotland internationalist Christophe Berra returned to resume the captaincy at the club which reared him. English striker Cole Stockton has come north from Tranmere Rovers, Manchester City’s Ashley Smith-Brown fills the left-back slot on loan, whilst Northern Ireland cap Michael Smith will operate on the opposite flank.

Another Northern Irish internationalist, Kyle Lafferty, is the marquee signing of the summer. Meanwhile, the Scotland goalkeeper Allan McGregor is wanted as first-choice in Gorgie if he leaves Hull City.

All of which points to a vital core of players who understand British football and appreciate the values prioritised by fans in this country. The versatile Pole, Rafal Grzelak, is Hearts’ only non-British signing to date.

Hearts supporters passionately demand that anyone in maroon gives 100 per cent for the cause. Many of the club’s nine January recruits failed to deliver in that sense, but the revised signing policy offers plenty encouragement.

“I’ve grown up knowing what it meant to play for the Hearts fans,” says Brad McKay, the Inverness defender who remains an avid Tynecastle fan after playing there between 2010 and 2015. “I think they’d rather get beat knowing the players are giving their all and that the players know what it means to play for the club.

“They need players who know half of Edinburgh is going home with their heads down if you lose. Players need to know fans will be huffing and puffing if they roll over and die and aren’t giving their all.

“You need a good core in any team. You need people who know what it means to play for a club here, and also what the league and the style of football is like.

“Bringing too many foreigners in at the same time didn’t help Hearts. I think you need to integrate one or two at a time. You need a bit of culture and people who have played in different countries, but when it all happens at once it can be a bit of a problem.”

The nadir of last season was undoubtedly February’s 3-1 loss to Hibs in a Scottish Cup fifth-round replay at Easter Road. It was a night when the Hearts foreigners looked like their minds and bodies were literally in a different country. Perhaps even a different continent.

“I know that if I was playing in another country in derbies and losing, and sometimes not even understand what the fans are shouting, I’m not saying I would care but I wouldn’t feel it as much,” continues McKay.

“When you hear what the fans are shouting and you know what it means, that half of Edinburgh is taking a hit and going home with shoulders slumped, that helps you. You need to know what Hearts means.

“If you have a core of players who can get through to the other players and make them understand, it’s massive. It looks like Hearts are getting a wee bit of that back with some of the signings.

“There has been massive change there in recent months, even since Robbie Neilson left [last December]. He was a big part of bringing other people in from different places. It worked well in the Championship but the top league is a different ball game completely.

“If you don’t have the right mindset, or you aren’t prepared for the physical battle or the mental side of the game in Scotland, you’re going to struggle. Fans are completely different here to places like Germany, Sweden, Spain etc, where they’re a lot more relaxed.

“The mental side of things can be difficult if you don’t know what to expect. Football is massive mentally. Some people just aren’t quite ready for that.”

McKay played in a Hearts side dominated by home-grown talent. The club’s financial collapse in 2013 meant the “administration kids” from the Riccarton youth academy had to step in and fight for the cause under then-manager Gary Locke.

They were relegated at the end of season 2013/14 after the club were deducted 15 points for suffering an insolvency event. McKay and his young colleagues - including Jamie Walker, Callum Paterson, Sam Nicholson, Jason Holt, Billy King, Kevin McHattie and Scott Robinson - certainly went down fighting.

“When we all came through at Hearts, it was different circumstances to now and that’s why we all got our chance. None of us could have complained or would do anything differently,” he says.

“There were guys who had come through since under-14s and younger, boys like Jason Holt, Jamie Walker, Fraser Mullen, David Smith and Billy King. These guys had been there since they were nine, ten or 12 years old. For most of us, it was an opportunity to impress in the first team.

“As a young player, you hope for someone to like you and to get a chance at first-team level. I think Kev McHattie was the first to make his debut from our group. Seeing guys like that get a chance when the club wasn’t in the financial state it would later get into, was exciting.

“The rest of us looked at it and thought: ‘If he can get a chance, why can’t we?’ Eventually, we all got a chance together. We all knew what it meant, we all knew how hard we’d worked to get there.

“Our driving force firstly was the club and the fans, but as well as that we just had a desire to impress in front of thousands of people. That’s what you dream of as a young kid.”

Knowing what playing for Hearts involves goes a long way down in Gorgie. The new recruits will be confident of success there having grown up entrenched in British football.