“What have I got to do to play in your team?” Brad McKay approached Robbie Neilson with that very question a few weeks ago.
He was told to be more consistent and his chance would come. Striding off the Tynecastle pitch at full-time on Saturday, McKay knew he had seized his opportunity. Two months of gut wrenching and soul searching were over.
He was soaked to the skin and emotionally exhausted, but it was worth it. Every second of it. The young Hearts defender had reclaimed a first-team place after weeks in the wilderness and couldn’t hide his satisfaction. In his first senior appearance since August 30, he regained a foothold in Neilson’s side by playing 90 minutes and helping record a clean sheet in the narrow win over Raith Rovers.
Danny Wilson’s hamstring injury and Callum Paterson’s suspension created an opportunity McKay had waited weeks for. Being left out of matchday squads and denied even a place on the substitutes’ bench with Hearts unbeaten and top of the league was, by his own admission, “painful”. Saturday was his opportunity and, despite feeling a bag of nerves, he took it.
The 21-year-old explained the self examination he indulged in whilst on the periphery of the Hearts squad. He asked head coach Neilson for an explanation of what was required for him to be reinstated. The answer forced him to strip back his own game and focus on basic defending. Saturday was the reward.
“It’s been a while. I found myself on the bench for the first few weeks of the season. The team’s done well, there were a few new additions and then I found myself not making the bench,” said McKay, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “I asked the manager what I needed to do to play for him. I never told him I should be playing and I didn’t say, ‘why am I not playing?’. I just asked him a simple question. I said, ‘what have I got to do to play in your team?’
“I was hurting at the time and rightly so because no-one likes not playing. It was really painful, to be honest. The team is winning, everyone’s happy, and you feel you’re not part of it. I was never bitter about anything, though. I’ve been playing with the under-20s for the last four or five weeks and Jack Ross [Hearts Under-20 coach] and Stevie Crawford [assistant coach] have been great with me. They’ve helped get my confidence back.”
Neilson’s answer to McKay’s question was typically honest. “He said consistency was the thing. You need consistency as a defender but as a young defender, you must have it. So I went away and worked on that. I worked on the simple things like keeping the ball, not forcing things, making good decisions.
“At first when I was playing with the under-20s, I was trying to over-complicate things and impress too much. When I simplified it down, I just had to do my own job. That’s keep the ball, win my headers and tackles, and anything above that is a bonus. I put together a few good performances for the under-20s and I’ve worked hard to get a chance again. At the end of the day, I needed an injury and a suspension [to get back in], but I’ll take it. And I’ll take the three points and a clean sheet.”
McKay relished playing his part in central defence beside goalscorer Alim Ozturk as Hearts stretched their unbeaten league record to 12 games. He was forced to watch that run gain momentum over the last two months whilst coping with the frustration of not being involved. Some players in his situation would have doubted their future. Others would have become resentful.
“I’ve never been bitter about it, I’ve just been hurting. That’s all,” said McKay. “Big Alim scored his wonder goal at Easter Road and I was in with the Hearts fans watching. Instead of sitting behind the dugout [with other players not involved] I went in with the supporters. When he scored, I was just like everyone else. I was falling down rows of seats and everything. It was crazy.”
Perhaps the camaraderie and backing from fans helped McKay retain some self belief during these difficult weeks. Colleagues like Scott Robinson and David Smith were told by Neilson they could leave but the defender sensed he still had something to offer the club he has supported since childhood. “The good thing about Robbie is he’s honest. As you saw with Scott Robinson and David Smith, if my time here was up then I think I’d know. I think he would tell me,” he said.
“When I asked Robbie what I needed to do to play for his team, he told me ‘consistency’. That alone gave me something to go away and work on for a few weeks.
He gave me one thing, he wanted me to be consistent, so that when you’re given the chance you are consistent and you do your job. I worked on doing that and now my chance has come. That’s all you ask for as a football player is a chance to show and prove your worth.”
Butterflies were on the rampage inside his stomach on Saturday morning, though. McKay has experienced playing at Celtic Park, Ibrox and Easter Road but a home game against Raith Rovers saw him fretting. In his mind, he had built up this opportunity into one of the biggest days of his fledgling career.
“It feels like I’ve been waiting a long while to get a chance. Obviously, with the injury and suspension, I thought I might have a chance. You never know but I thought I’d be in with a shout. I got my head right and prepared well in the under-20s. I can’t thank Jack Ross and Stevie Crawford enough for their help with my game.
“Saturday was the most nervous I’d been in a while. The last time I’d played for the first team was August. The team has been doing well and I don’t want to let anyone down. It’s been that long since I’ve had a chance and I’ve worked so hard that I didn’t want to let myself down. I was delighted with how it went.”
Neilson may now find himself with a defensive conundrum if Wilson is fit for Saturday’s match with Falkirk. Brad McKay is back and feeling good about himself again.