IN case anyone hadn’t noticed, Brad McKay isn’t familiar with the phrase “giving up”. Three weeks ago he suffered the ignominy of being dropped for the first time in his senior career. His response was resilient, gritty and laden with character as he forced his way back into Hearts’ starting line-up at Motherwell on Saturday.
The final result rather clouded what should have been a satisfying day for the 20-year-old centre-back. Losing 2-1 at Fir Park having led through Ryan Stevenson’s goal was a bodyblow for a team battling against relegation. Hearts have lost five of their last six league matches and are now 13 points adrift of Kilmarnock at the bottom of the Scottish Premiership.
They travel to Rugby Park this weekend for what is a mammoth fixture. The resilience of McKay and others is likely to come in handy.
Throwing in the towel, or becoming depressed, or retreating into a shell simply isn’t in his nature. He proved so by fighting his way back into the team, but the coming weeks and months will provide a much greater challenge.
Hearts will need all hands to the pump to halt their recent run of results, get out of their current predicament and preserve their status in Scotland’s top flight. The odds against them are mounting up, and McKay knows it.
“It’s hard to take but you’ve got to get up and get on with it,” he said, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “You can’t feel sorry for yourself or it’s over. As long as you keep believing, you’ve got a chance.
“Of course it’s a test of our character. At the start of the season, people were writing us off. It was: ‘Hearts are down, Hearts are this, Hearts are that’. We dealt with that and we took it on the chin. It was one of these things that everyone was going to say, all the Hibs fans and everyone else.
“We had to get on with it and we did. We responded well and got a few good results. Now we’ve had a run of bad results and you can end up in a bit of trouble again. There are plenty games to go, a lot of time left and a lot of time to improve. It’s a close-knit squad. We’ve just got to stay together and stay positive and keep the fans with us. The supporters play a massive part as well so if they stay with us then I think we’ll do okay.”
Being left out of the team was a wake-up call for McKay, one which he used as motivation after a face-to-face talk with manager Gary Locke. “I haven’t done anything, I’ve only played ten games,” he continued. “It’s good to get that run of games but it’s nice to be brought back down on your feet again. It makes you realise.
“The manager explained to me why I was being left out. He’s good that way. He explained to me before the Dundee United game that I was going to start on the bench and he told me the reasons why. He said I wasn’t defending the way I had been earlier in the season. I accepted that because he was right.
“I just got my head down and started working hard on the basics again. It’s never nice to be dropped. It was just bad form. You can’t play well all the time. You hope to, but you can’t. When your form drops, you need to pick yourself up and get back at it again.
“I worked hard to get back into the team. I had a bad game against Queen of the South a couple of weeks ago and probably deserved to get shipped out. I’ve worked hard and got myself back in the side, I’m just disappointed with the result against Motherwell.
“Hopefully I can keep my place. I don’t think we had a bad player on the park on Saturday. If I can keep playing well, then hopefully I can cement my place. Every game is massive. We have Hibs in the cup coming up which I hope to be involved in. I’ll be working hard to cement my place in that team.”
This week, the biggest challenge at Riccarton may be lifting morale after Motherwell’s come-from-behind win. McKay is one of many youngsters in Locke’s squad but he does not believe losing from a winning position is down to inexperience.
“You can imagine what it’s like in the dressing-room after any defeat. Being 1-0 up, it’s always harder to take,” he explained. “It’s difficult for everybody when you take the lead and still end up getting beat. It brought back memories of the Ross County game a wee bit. It’s obviously gutting when you go a goal up and lose. It’s just having to hang on when you’re ahead.
“I don’t think it’s down to a lack of experience, not at all. It can play a part but not a big part. The most experienced teams in the world, Real Madrids and Man Uniteds can lose games and lose leads. It happens to every team. When a sub [Craig Moore] comes off the bench and scores an absolute wonder goal about five seconds later, what can you do? Talk about an impact sub. It’s devastating.
“I think we deserved at least a point. I thought we started slowly but in the second half we came out and played a lot better. We started getting the ball down and passing it and we deservedly went 1-0 up. Then, from one long ball, it’s been knocked down to the boy and he’s hit a wonder goal to equalise.”