A TIRED and gruff voice answers the phone. “Hullo. . .” It’s been some weekend. Conrad Balatoni has been celebrating Partick Thistle’s title win pretty much since SPL promotion was secured on Saturday. We can forgive him his fuzzy head. Fifteen months after his release from Hearts with zero top-flight experience, the defender has proven his critics wrong – and himself right.
Balatoni believed in his own ability to play at the top level even when others doubted. John Murray, director of football at Riccarton, freed him in January 2012 and he joined Thistle after previous loan spells at Firhill. Jackie McNamara took the calculated gamble and the club were richly rewarded with a series of consistent displays in central defence. The culmination was the weekend victory over Falkirk which returned Glasgow’s third club to Scotland’s top tier after a nine-year absence.
“I think it might take a week or two to sink in,” Balatoni told the Evening News. “All the older players tell you to savour these moments because they don’t happen very often. We have a lot of young players like myself just starting out in their careers. Later in life, we’ll look back and realise what a fantastic achievement this is with the squad we have.
“I just felt relief at full-time on Saturday. We’ve had so many games in a short space of time. I was absolutely knackered, almost running on empty in games, but I’ve managed to keep going and, when the final whistle went, I was just relieved. I had a big smile on my face and I thought, ‘finally, we’ve done this’. Now we can relax and enjoy the last two games because there’s no pressure on us.
“I haven’t played in the SPL yet but I feel I’ve taken a huge step towards making my mark. Next season I want to play every week, I don’t want to be on the bench. I’ve always believed in my ability and I always thought I could play in this league. Hopefully now I’ve got a chance to prove to everyone that I can.
“I’m sure the manager will have players he wants to bring in to strengthen the squad. Guys (Chris Erskine and Paul Paton) are already leaving for Dundee United and that’s what is going to happen realistically. We’ll all be working as hard to stay in the SPL as we did to get there in the first place. You saw from the Morton game recently, when we pulled in nearly 9000, that we can get the crowds and that Partick Thistle is a big club. It’s been far too long since they’ve been in the top flight. We’ve fixed that now.”
Born in Leeds, Balatoni moved to Edinburgh aged eight. He began supporting Hearts after just one visit to Tynecastle and joined the club’s youth academy in his teens. Being told he wasn’t good enough for the first team was hard to take, yet the 22-year-old’s resilience quickly took hold. Some Riccarton colleagues, like Paul Mulrooney, vanished from professional football after leaving Hearts. Balatoni was utterly hell bent on bouncing back.
“I had a feeling I was going to get released,” he recalled. “Hearts phoned me one day while I was living in Glasgow and asked if I could come in. I said I wasn’t driving all the way through for a meeting, I just wanted them to tell me over the phone. John Murray was fine about it. He just said, ‘you’re not in the plans so unfortunately we’re not going to renew your contract’. I told him that was fine. There were other things that happened but I can’t go into that. It’s part and parcel of football and I was big enough to deal with it.
“I’ve landed on my feet at Thistle. It was one of those situations where you have to take a step back to go two steps forwards. This has done wonders for me as a player and as a person. I’m thankful to Jackie McNamara for having the belief in me to sign me. I was sad to leave Hearts because I was a Hearts fan. I told myself there are plenty players who get released and then just fall out of the game. Luckily for me, I’ve managed to stay involved with a full-time club. That’s something I’m really grateful for.”
He still speaks with a Yorkshire twang to his voice, yet his origins lie in the old Habsburg Empire dominated by Austria and Hungary. His maternal grandparents – one Austrian and the other Hungarian – moved to the UK and settled in Leeds. Balatoni’s father’s surname is Thorpe but he kept his mother’s maiden name.
Were he still at Hearts, that name could easily be adorning a maroon shirt in the SPL already given the raft of youngsters promoted from the Riccarton youth academy this season. Balatoni doesn’t lament his fate, though. He explains the benefits of playing regularly in the First Division rather than ponder a supposed missed opportunity.
“I could still have been there and they might not have played me,” he continued. “I could’ve been 22-years-old with zero first-team experience, whereas now I’ve got almost 90 games under my belt. I’m pretty happy with that at this age and I’ve also got a First Division winner’s medal now.”
He still attends Tynecastle when possible and is eagerly anticipating the day he walks out there as a Partick Thistle player. “I know what Tynie’s like when it’s packed and hopefully it will be full on the day we go there. It’s a great stadium and it will be quite intimidating but I’m sure we’ll get used to it. We’ll have to adapt to different grounds all round the SPL and I’m really looking forward to it.
“It was a kid down the road in our street who got me into Hearts. He went to the same school as me and asked if I wanted to go along to a game with his dad, so I went and I just fell in love with it. That was me from then.
“I had season tickets for years until I was able to get complimentary ones as a player. I still have friends there and I still try to get to as many Hearts games as I can.”