Conrad Balatoni isn’t the only Kilmarnock player who’ll be visiting his first footballing home on Saturday when Kilmarnock pitch up at Tynecastle, but he’s arguably, and somewhat surprisingly, the one who’s made the biggest impact against his former club.
After three years with Partick Thistle that included a title and promotion in 2012/13, then manager Gary Locke took Balatoni to Kilmarnock on a free transfer last September, initially on a six-month deal that has since been extended until the summer 2018.
Tynecastle, or more specifically Riccarton, is where it all started for the Leeds-born centre back and, having returned with two different clubs since leaving Hearts in 2012, it’s a fixture he always eagerly anticipates.
“A lot of people know I started out there and it’s always good going back,” Balatoni said. “I’ve actually got a good record at Tynecastle – I don’t think I’ve been beaten any time I’ve played there. Twice with Partick we won 2-0 and 4-2, and then the one-each draw with Kilmarnock earlier this season in which I scored. Hopefully, it’s another positive result for ourselves this time.”
Balatoni’s late equaliser at Tynecastle back in October was his first goal for his new club. It remained his only goal until Hearts travelled to Rugby Park in the New Year fixture on January 2. Once again he found the net, this time giving the hosts the lead, only for Gavin Reilly to equalise on the stroke of half-time. Further second-half strikes from Callum Paterson and Josh Magennis meant another share of the spoils.
His scrambled effort in front of the travelling support prompted the old ‘cupped ear’ celebration in response to some earlier stick.
“I went down injured and a few of the fans were giving me a bit of abuse, so I thought I’d just give some back!” he laughed. “I was just telling them to keep it quiet. Sometimes things like that come back and bite fans, but it was just a bit of banter. We’d had a good start to that game so it was quite nice to score in front of the away fans.
“Although I never played for the first team, it’s nice to score against the club that deems you not good enough. People have their opinions but that’s football and I went away and I’ve probably become a better player because of that. There’s absolutely no hard feelings or anything with the club but I’ll be going out to do a job for Kilmarnock.
“It would be quite funny if I scored another goal against them but we’ll wait and see. Hopefully I can – I’ll have to try and get on the end of a corner or something.”
Had his career not worked out the way it has, he could have easily been one of those supporters in the stand. Having moved to Scotland at a young age, Hearts were the club Balatoni supported as he grew up in Edinburgh. While he’ll always be grateful for the opportunity to begin his career at Tynecastle, the defender admitted he’s developed a more professional attitude as his career has progressed. “I supported Hearts when I was younger, but as I’ve got into professional football, I’ve kind of stayed away from supporting anyone,” he explained. “I just enjoy football in general now. It’s just great to play and I don’t really support anyone.
“Hearts will always have a little place in my heart because they gave me that grounding that every young boy needs coming through and taught me everything really. I don’t really support them anymore, though, so now it doesn’t mean all that much more compared to playing anyone else really.”
Given the timing of Balatoni’s departure from Hearts and the subsequent financial problems that subsequently propelled a host of youngsters into the first team, he could be forgiven for wondering ‘what if?’. But the 25-year-old doesn’t think that way. “The people higher up made the decision that they didn’t think I was quite good enough to cut it at Hearts,” he said. “That was their opinion and I respected that and moved on. I dropped down a division to get valuable game time and progress my career – I certainly think I’ve done that. I would recommend it to any young player if they’re not playing games. I’ve won a promotion with Partick and played at the top level in Scotland since, so it worked out quite well.”
Another player who moved on from Hearts for regular football was Balatoni’s team-mate in Ayrshire, Kevin McHattie. Given current left-back Juwon Oshaniwa’s struggle for form since joining Robbie Neilson’s ranks, Balatoni sees Hearts’ loss very much as Killie’s gain.
“I haven’t really spoken to Kevin about what happened when he left,” he said. “Again, it’s about opinions and, if he wasn’t going to get enough games, he’s at that age where he needs to be playing so for him it was probably the right time to move. He’s a good player and he came in on Saturday and did well. It’s up to him to keep that spot an hopefully do the same on Saturday and show Hearts what they let go.”
His former employers go into Saturday’s clash having endured a difficult couple of weeks. A painful Scottish Cup exit at the hands of Hibs preceded a late 2-1 reverse at basement club Dundee United last weekend, and Balatoni acknowledges that Killie need to be prepared to face a potential maroon backlash.
“I know Hearts, and it’s unacceptable to get beat by Hibs,” he stated, perhaps still subconsciously thinking like a Hearts fan. “They obviously followed that up with a disappointing result against Dundee United so we know they’ll come out all guns blazing. It’s up to us to stifle them, try and make them nervy, implement our own game plan and try and grab the three points.”