As Hearts prepare to begin a summer recruitment drive, defender Brad McKay has warned incoming players they must be able to handle the intense pressure around Tynecastle next season.
The Edinburgh club are aiming for promotion from the Championship at the first time of asking. Along with Rangers, they will be viewed as a scalp by most clubs in the division after being relegated from the Premiership.
Head coach Robbie Neilson and director of football Craig Levein want up to seven new signings to reinforce the squad. Players are being sought in all positions after Jamie MacDonald, Jamie Hamill, Dylan McGowan, Mark Ridgers and Callum Tapping were released, with Ryan Stevenson also keen to leave. McKay, pictured, advised anyone approached by Hearts to be ready to do battle in a fiercely competitive league where no quarter will be asked or given.
“I don’t think the club would bring anyone in who expected anything less,” he said today. “If they came in expecting it to be easy and expecting just to turn up when they want, that’s not going to be the case. I think the boys who do come in will know that. They will possibly have been places and experienced things like this before.
“Everybody will want to beat Hearts and want to turn us over next year, but that’s extra motivation and inspiration for us not to let them.
“It will almost be like a derby every week because everyone will want to beat us. When you play your rivals, it’s all about winning, no matter how horrible the performance is. That’s what every game next season will be like.
“It’s all about your personal performance. You can’t drop your standards no matter what team you’re up against. If Hearts keep their standards high and make a few additions to the squad then they’ve got a real chance.”
McKay, speaking at the Bank of Scotland Midnight League East Regional Final at Tynecastle, recalled a previous time in his career when he felt like a big fish in a small pond.
“A couple of years ago, I was in the Hearts youth team and St Johnstone ruined our chances of winning the league,” he said. “We lost 4-3 to them in the second last game of the season and I remember their keeper coming running up to jump in with his pals and celebrate at the end.
“It meant nothing to them apart from taking a scalp. They weren’t going to win the league but we were going for the title. I expect something similar next year.”
McKay has just completed what he calls “one of the best and one of the worst experiences of my life”.
A first full season as a senior Hearts player feels mighty good to a towering centre-back who has worn maroon shirts since childhood. Despite the club’s relegation, McKay has learned quickly to cope with the pressures and expectations of first-team football.
Having said all that, he is not entirely satisfied with the last 12 months. The 21-year-old managed 32 appearances in the campaign just ended after emerging from the club’s youth academy slightly later than some of his peers. He now expects to face a strong challenge for his favoured position in the team.
“Whoever we bring in will be to replace these boys who have left. We’re going to have to strengthen all over the place, including defence, and I know that. All our defenders are young but, no matter who comes in, I want to fight for my place and I want to bring Hearts back up.
“Last August, when I found out I was going to play the first game of the season at St Johnstone and I walked out of the tunnel, I was astounded. Then, come the end of the season, you beat Partick Thistle and you end up getting relegated. It’s a horrible feeling and it’s mixed emotions, especially when you’re winning and you’ve put a good run together like we did towards the end of the campaign.
“It’s been a real roller-coaster ride for myself. I’ve been in and out of the team. If I can play just as many games next year, it will be a successful season for me.”