Still just 21, Brad McKay has taken it upon himself to become a father figure to Hearts’ large army of fringe men.
With the squad having expanded over the summer to the point where Hearts now have more than 20 players with genuine aspirations of regular first-team football, McKay has had to be content with his role as captain of Robbie Neilson’s second string in friendlies and cup competitions so far.
It is one he has taken extremely seriously, on and off the pitch. Having endured his share of frustration in trying to establish himself in the team over the past few years, he feels he is well equipped to counsel his teams through how to deal with being overlooked for the league action on a Saturday when they feel they are working well enough in training to be more prominently involved.
Part of his role as Riccarton’s unofficial agony aunt – which he is performing entirely of his own accord – is ensuring that players left on the periphery don’t start feeling sorry for themselves and instead show the type of resolve which he did when he forced his way back into the plans last season after falling out of the team under Gary Locke.
“Obviously, for myself and a lot of the other boys in the background, it’s been difficult to try and get into the team, especially when the team’s winning comfortably and against big teams,” said McKay as he prepares to lead the fringe men in tonight’s League Cup trip to Stenhousemuir. “It’s always going to be difficult to get in. But I look after some of the younger boys because it becomes difficult when you’re not playing, especially if you’re training well and you feel you’re doing well when you get a chance in the games. It becomes difficult to keep your head up and your spirits high.
“I’ve said to a few of the boys they’ve got to be stronger, they’ve got to be a wee bit harder, and give the manager a reason to play you. In training, you can’t walk about with your head down and think ‘I’m not getting a game’. We’re just three games into the season and I’ve told the young boys there’s a long way to go. There will be injuries and there will be chances and as long as you work hard in training, and show the manager that if he puts you in there he can trust you, you’ll get a chance.
“I’m not going to name any names because I’ve been guilty [of letting my head drop] before. It’s horrible when you’re not playing and you want a chance. But when a manager looks at the training ground, does he look at the boy whose head is down, shoulders are down and his attitude is bad? No, he doesn’t. He looks at the boy who hasn’t been playing and hasn’t had many chances but is working hard, training well and has a great attitude. He’ll be in the back of the manager’s mind. I say that to the younger boys all the time.”
Fans often don’t see the anguish players endure when they are left out of the team, and McKay believes all senior players have a duty to help keep their colleagues’ spirits up during times of difficulty. “I never like to see boys losing confidence,” he said. “There’s nothing worse, even as a fan, to see a football player with no confidence. Even a wee word in his ear to tell him it’s going to be all right, you’ll get a chance somewhere, and you’ve got to keep your head high.
“I think that’s important for all the more senior boys, who have more experience than me, because I never really had that here when I was coming through. I never really had someone to say, ‘listen, it will be all right’. I’ve just almost learned myself, because I know how that feels. If I can just give the boys a wee bit back and teach them how I dealt with it, that’s something I think I would’ve appreciated when I was younger.”
McKay has already seen one of his frustrated friends banish early-season despondency when James Keatings came in from the cold to fire a hat-trick in Saturday’s 4-0 win at Raith Rovers. “The prime example is James,” he said. “It’s crazy how quickly things can change. He wasn’t playing and he was one of the ones I told to keep stronger and told him he would get a chance, as a striker, especially. If players aren’t scoring or if there’s an injury or suspension that’s what happens and he’s gone in and he’s taken his chance. I had a wee joke with James on the bus up on Saturday. I was calling him the nervous man. He said he wasn’t and had played at Stark’s Park before, but I was winding him up, saying ‘you’re nervous about today’. But I told him he would score and when he scored he would have to move his hand in his celebration like he was shaking nervously.
“He didn’t do the celebration, though. He got a wee bit excited and ran away. I was on the bench wondering what he was doing, but he at least pointed over to me.”
Now McKay is focused on forcing his own way into Neilson’s first-choice XI. With Danny Wilson and Alim Ozturk forming a formidable defensive partnership, that will be easier said than done, but he gets another chance to impress at Ochilview tonight, less than a week after he skippered the second string to a 4-1 defeat at Livingston in the Petrofac Training Cup.
“I had a good wee run in pre-season and in the cup last week, although it wasn’t a great result,” said McKay. “A lot of young boys made their debuts in that game and they did well, it was never a 4-1 game. We were in the game for long spells and we had three great chances before they scored their second, and after that their third came and we kind of went to pieces after that. But the boys did well on their debuts and I was pleased for them all getting a chance. But it’s obviously good to get the captain’s armband, because it’s always an honour. I enjoy that responsibility.”
Tonight’s match will have extra significance for McKay as he had a brief spell on loan at Stenhousemuir two years ago, which helped steel him for coming into Hearts’ first team.
“I’m looking forward to going back,” he said. “There are a few players still there but lot of the boys aren’t there any more, including the manager, who was Martyn Corrigan at the time. The kit man, Oscar, was a good lad and Sean Dickson and Bryan Hodge are still there, so it’ll be nice to catch up with them. It was an important spell for me going there on loan.
“I had been at Penicuik juniors when I was 17 and I gained experience when I was there, but it wasn’t in the senior leagues. But Stenny was good. I scored when I was there, a left-foot volley in a 3-3 draw against Forfar.”