Devotion seems to be in Brad McKay’s DNA. His Hearts team-mates sunbathed on Europe’s beaches last weekend while he sat at home with only his mobile phone for company.
He had good reason. St Johnstone, whom he joins this summer, are chasing European qualification and needed a win at Aberdeen. McKay sat willing them on via the Livescore app on his phone.
Dedication is one of the defender’s best commodities and, although he is a lifelong Hearts fan who has yet to don a St Johnstone jersey, his commitment is clear. News of Chris Kane’s winning goal at Pittodrie on Sunday reverberated through McKay’s mobile, leaving him visualising European football weeks after ending the Championship season with Hearts.
Victory at Aberdeen secured fourth place for St Johnstone but they need Inverness to win tomorrow’s Scottish Cup final to guarantee their place in the Europa League qualifiers. Inverness have already reached Europe by finishing third in the league but would also qualify as national cup winners should they beat Falkirk to lift the trophy. The extra place would then go to Saints.
McKay has spent the last few weeks pondering every detail of this scenario in his mind. He signed a pre-contract agreement with St Johnstone in February and knows his new club are one step away from a remarkable fourth successive season in Europe. Former Hearts colleagues Jamie MacDonald and David Smith will be in the Falkirk side at Hampden but McKay will become an Inverness supporter for the day. And a fully devoted one at that. He knows no other way.
“I’ve been keeping a close eye on it,” he told the Evening News. “A lot of people are on holiday but I was sitting with my phone and my Livescore app last week. I had it on my favourites so that it pops up as a notification on your phone. I was absolutely delighted to see St Johnstone win and get fourth place.
“I remember watching Hearts playing in Europe and seeing Robbie Neilson score against Basel and things like that. These were always the things I’d imagined – being in a Hearts jersey and maybe coming on in a European match. I spoke to Tommy Wright [St Johnstone manager] on the phone a wee while ago and we were talking about their chances of making Europe. Celtic were still in the cup at that point, which meant if St Johnstone finished fourth they’d want Celtic or possibly Inverness to win the cup.
“After they drew with Dundee United at home a couple of weeks ago, I wasn’t sure if they would make it. They were facing two of the toughest matches to end the season against Celtic and Aberdeen. They’ve obviously believed in themselves and got a couple of great results. The belief the manager has instilled in them is massive. You could see in those last two games what it meant to them. Europe still isn’t secured but I know who I’ll be cheering in the cup final tomorrow.”
Europa League qualifiers mean a notoriously early start to the season, as St Johnstone can testify. The first qualifying round begins on July 2, with the second on July 14. McKay gives the impression he’d be there at three o’clock in the morning on the moon in mid-December if it meant getting a European debut. “I’m away on holiday soon so I’ll be back in plenty time if they’re starting pre-season training earlier. My holidays won’t clash. Even if they did, I’d be flying back early.”
At 22, the Edinburgh-born defender is ready for a new challenge after five years at Hearts. He knows he needs to progress his career by playing regularly. The bit-part role he was restricted to at Tynecastle will no longer suffice. Wright’s overtures quickly convinced him he would be a valued part of the squad at McDiarmid Park.
“He said he wanted me. That was the main thing for me, that he really wanted me,” explained McKay. “To feel valued as a player is one of the biggest things you can ask for from a manager. That’s not saying I haven’t felt valued at Hearts, but my initial feeling was that I’d feel more valued at St Johnstone than I did this season at Hearts. I played ten league games this season out of 36. If I could double that or even triple it at St Johnstone next year, then I would feel more valued.
“That’s my aim, to play regularly and consistently. It’s no good to play a game then come out of the team for a few weeks and then back in again. I need to train hard all week and string some good performances together to get my confidence back. When I was in the Hearts team, I was flying and my confidence was sky high. I can only imagine how the guys who played 34 or 35 games felt.
“When you’re working under a new manager, you need to quickly understand what he wants. Every manager expects hard work and that’s something that’s a given with me. I’ll go and give that and I’ll figure out quickly what Tommy likes and doesn’t like. It’s difficult for young players to understand that, when you’re playing under a new manager, everything changes. That’s what happened with Robbie Neilson and Gary Locke at Hearts. They’re completely different coaches and completely different guys. It’s the same throughout football.
“I went up and watched St Johnstone against Celtic in the 0-0 draw and I saw the 1-1 draw with Dundee United as well. What I saw when I went up there is that they’re a real family club. I was told that before but to witness it first hand was great. I was really looked after when I went there. I was made to feel so welcome and I’m not even playing for them yet because my contract hasn’t kicked in. I got a really nice vibe from the place as soon as I walked through the door. I’m not even sure people knew who I was when I first went to the office to ask for my tickets.”
Inevitably, he will return to Tynecastle in a blue shirt as opposed to a maroon one. “It’s something I thought about straight away when I signed the pre-contract. I’m interested to see when we’ll play Hearts once the fixtures come out. I’d like to think I’ll get a decent reception when I come back to Tynecastle.
“A couple of my pals are winding me up saying they’ll be booing me from Section N, but I told them that would be the last time I’d speak to them. If there’s booing from Section N, I’ll know it’s them. Hearts fans are normally good with guys coming back and I haven’t done anything to deserve a bad reception. It’ll be a strange one.
“I’ll look forward to playing against old team-mates and people I’ve grown up with. Even the kitman has been great with me and said he’s looking forward to seeing me back. Tynecastle is so familiar so I’m not sure how I’ll feel.”
Excitement and nervousness will probably be just two of his emotions. Much like sitting waiting to see if St Johnstone can get that European spot.