DON’T mention Hearts’ 12-point lead within earshot of Brad McKay – and don’t even think about suggesting that the Scottish Championship title race is finished.
The Tynecastle defender is irked by such comments every time he hears them, which is more and more often as the season goes on.
Tuesday night’s win at Cowdenbeath put Hearts 12 points ahead of Rangers at the top of the league in time for today’s trip to bottom club Livingston. They remain unbeaten after winning 15 of their 17 league matches so far. For McKay and the rest of the Riccarton dressing room, nothing has been achieved as yet and it remains very much business as usual.
“I don’t really like when everyone’s saying ‘mind the gap’ and ‘the league’s over before Christmas’. I know all the boys in the team feel the same,” he said. “This is just fans [talking], this isn’t in the dressing-room. We have a completely different attitude. We want to win every game and I don’t think that will change just because we’re 12 points clear. If anything, we want to build on that.”
Not even the fact their nearest rivals are in deep crisis can persuade McKay to veer from his stance. “I don’t really read much into what’s happening at Rangers. I just do my job here. I don’t think there’s any point in us looking at Ally McCoist or a new manager coming in. I don’t keep track of what they’re doing and I don’t think anybody here does. We just do our job and it’s proving to be enough.”
McKay vividly remembers the dark days at Hearts just 18 months ago after the onset of administration. Contrast that with events now and it is difficult to believe it is the same club. New owner Ann Budge has helped transform the structure and harnessed everyone for the cause.
“When we were coming in every day and it was ‘your wages aren’t coming till next week’ – it was something like eight and a half weeks we waited for wages,” recalled the centre-back, speaking about events even before administration. “It’s obviously not great and it played a part and, as much as the boys wanted to say to the press that we were just focusing on the game, it was difficult. The understanding and communication in the background was difficult.
“I’ve been here for nearly five years and you have to look after your money and do the right things with it. If you don’t, that’s your problem. Maybe you have to borrow off your gran or someone. You get through it. It’s more difficult for the younger guys. For guys who don’t get paid as much, eight and a half weeks is a hell of a long time to wait for money. There’s family and people who can help you out till then.
“Last season was a different experience for myself and a lot of the young guys. There were some difficult times and results, like the 7-0 loss against Celtic. We’ve come a long way since then. The club have stripped everything back from top to bottom and I think that will be the making of this club.
“I know the annual [general] meetings have gone well and Ann has been great since she’s come in. There is an understanding now between the manager, the owners, Craig Levein [director of football] and even the backroom staff. Everything is clicking for us at the moment and hopefully it continues.”
Hearts recalled McKay at centre-back for the 2-0 win over Cowdenbeath, but he is not certain to keep his place today. He was pleased to play his part in that win in Fife even though he feels he should have scored.
“I don’t think I’ll ever score. I could’ve got a hat-trick the other night or more,” he said. “The most pleasing thing for us is the clean sheet at Cowdenbeath on a cold Tuesday night in December. A lot of people think ‘Hearts can play football but can they get down to the nitty gritty and fight for a win?’ On Tuesday night we showed we can.
“I didn’t know I was starting until that afternoon when Alim [Ozturk] was struggling with his hamstring. I prepared well for the game, as I always do because I know things like that can happen and people can fall ill. There are a few people with sickness bugs in the team so I always prepare well. I’m delighted getting a clean sheet.”
Last time Hearts visited Livingston was in the Petrofac Training Cup back in August when they suffered a 4-1 loss.
“That was a difficult game for us. There were something like eight or nine debutants and they were all young guys. It was a learning curve for us and the young guys that came in. We’ve got a full squad from Tuesday night and we want to take three points.”