Leaving Hearts hit Brad McKay hard. Only now, a full year later, has he properly recovered from the devastation. Although he instigated his exit from Tynecastle in May 2015, the reality overwhelmed him slightly, even if he doesn’t like admitting so.
The defender now faces a critical period in his career at St Johnstone. Entering the second year of a two-year contract, he knows it is now or never. He arrived in Perth last summer eager to impress but found himself surplus to requirements and loaned to Dunfermline. In hindsight, he feels he was still unsettled trying to digest the fact his Hearts career had ended.
Pre-season training began six weeks ago with McKay determined to prove himself to manager Tommy Wright. So far, he is making a decent fist of it and has been involved in every matchday squad. St Johnstone have impressed in four Betfred League Cup ties and three pre-season friendlies, their only defeat being a penalty shootout loss at Brechin City.
McKay hopes for the chance to further stake his claim against his former club next Wednesday, when Hearts visit McDiarmid Park in the League Cup second round.
“I think there were easier draws out there for both teams but you always look forward to playing big games,” said the 23-year-old. “Moving from Hearts wasn’t easy for me. I don’t like to admit it. I’m pretty strong and I keep my head up at all costs, but I found it pretty difficult. I’d spent such a long time at Hearts and then went to a different club trying to fit in. For whatever reason it didn’t work out for me, but I’m determined to make a better go of it this season.
“A lot of people don’t know that I forced the issue at Hearts last year. I asked if I was going to play and was told they wanted to hold on to me as back-up. I forced them to tell me what they really wanted from me. What they wanted from me wasn’t what I wanted from them. I don’t want that to happen again.
“I know I’ve got another year left on my contract so my plan was to get my head down and get myself a good pre-season. I didn’t want to make any decisions or force any decisions out of St Johnstone until they’d seen me again after my time at Dunfermline.
“I came back fit because I worked extremely hard over the summer to get myself in the best shape possible. It didn’t work out how I’d planned previously so I wanted to change that. I feel really good, but I haven’t spoke to the manager yet. We’ve brought defenders in, but I’ve had game-time so far and I think I’ve done well. All I can do is keep working hard just now and see where it takes me.
“The league is about start and I’m involved. I’ve been on the bench, so I’m not in the stands any more. I’m one step closer to the team. If you’re in the stands, where I was for the first six months here, you’re not even close. If you’re on the bench, you’re only an injury or suspension away from getting a chance. A chance is all I need this time.”
McKay will seek talks with Wright before the transfer window closes at the end of the month to ascertain what slice of the action he can expect. Another loan cannot be discounted but it is definitely low on the player’s list of options.
“I want to make more of an impact. A lot of folk had me written off and thought I’d never play for St Johnstone again. Anyone who knows me knows I’d do everything and anything in my power to make sure that wasn’t the case,” he said.
“I’ll speak to the manager in a week or two but, for now, I’m happy with the position I’m in. I’m just waiting for my chance and, if I get it, I feel I’ll definitely grab it with both hands this time and not let it go. I feel great physically. I played against Bradford in a friendly and it was probably my best 90 minutes in a very long time. I want to build on that and get as far as I can.
“Joining Dunfermline in January helped me. I played every minute of every game, I scored a few goals and I was working tirelessly after training on things I felt I could improve – heading, attacking corners, my left foot, etc.
“I’m back at St Johnstone now fully prepared, mentally and physically. I could’ve chucked it in my mind, thinking I wasn’t going to get a chance. I think a lot of people at St Johnstone are now seeing what I’m capable of.”