Plundering goals is Billy McKay’s speciality, a fact Hearts know to their cost. Five goals in four games against the Edinburgh club over the last year depict him as a perennial danger ahead of tomorrow’s journey into the Highlands.
Stopping Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s leading striker is easier said than done, as many teams have discovered over the last two seasons.
With 19 goals in 30 appearances so far in this campaign, and 27 in 46 games the season before, McKay is one of Scotland’s most predatory forwards.
Hearts travel north tomorrow needing a win to continue a mini league revival in which they have taken seven points from the last nine. The League Cup semi-final defeat by Inverness two weeks ago may have quelled the feelgood factor, but keeping McKay quiet would go a long way towards helping regain the momentum.
“He’s been in good form for a long time. He’s really consistent and scores a lot of goals,” explained Danny Wilson, the Hearts captain, pictured. “I don’t think you can really plan to try and nullify him. You just go out to try and play as you would against any striker and try to limit their scoring chances. McKay is one of those players who really only needs a half chance and he’ll score.”
That much is evident from the previous two league meetings between Hearts and Inverness this season. The Highlanders won both games 2-0, with McKay scoring all four goals.
“He just seems to be one of those players who is in the right place at the right time,” continued Wilson. “You think you’ve got him under wraps and suddenly he’s away from you and the ball’s in the back of your net. You can’t really pinpoint one thing in his game, he’s got a lot of good attributes and he uses them to full effect. Inverness showed against us in the League Cup semi-final that they have players who can score from all over the pitch, so we can’t just concentrate on Billy McKay. If we do that, we’ll get punished.”
The hangover from losing that cup tie on penalties has taken time to lift. Riccarton was a sombre place for the last fortnight, but slowly Wilson and his colleagues have restored some camaraderie and refocused their attentions on league business.
“It’s been a tough two weeks trying to get over it,” he said. “We would’ve preferred to have a game last weekend to take our minds off it but we’re out the Scottish Cup so we had some time off. We’ve had time to ourselves and everybody seems to have come back revitalised. It was tough getting over the way the semi-final ended because that was a big chance to repay the fans and get to a cup final. We weren’t able to do it and we’ve only really got ourselves to blame. We should have had the game killed off and we didn’t manage it, so we need to move on now.
“I don’t really think it makes a difference that we’re playing Inverness again. We’re just glad to have a game to try and put the last result to bed. We’re not really fussed who it is against. If you look at it one way, we’re still unbeaten in our last four games [excluding the semi-final penalty shoot-out]. We need to try and maintain that run and hopefully extend it to five this weekend.”
Hearts’ league form is better than it has been at any point this season, although they remain 17 points adrift at the bottom of the Premiership. However, tomorrow’s task is made all the more daunting by the absences of five first-team regulars – the injured David Smith, Jamie Walker and Jason Holt, plus the suspended Kevin McHattie and Callum Paterson.
“We’ll just try to keep winning our own games and hope the teams above us drop points,” said Wilson. “One week it looks like you’re cutting the gap, then suddenly it increases again. When I took ill [in late December] I think we were only about 13 points behind, and by the time I came back it was 22 and we had a mountain to climb. It shows that teams can go on little runs in this league and I think there will be a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. We need to keep winning our own games and hope it takes us up the table but it is a big ask because we’re a long way behind.
“McHattie and Paterson are both suspended for tomorrow so that’s not ideal. Then you have guys like Jamie Walker and Jason Holt injured, and now Div Smith as well. I think Div’s been great over the last few weeks and now he’s looking at a lay-off. It seems that, just when we’re starting to get a settled side, everything gets disrupted again.”
Within Tynecastle, there persists a feeling that events have often conspired against Hearts this season following their lapse into administration. Wilson is not one to harbour any kind of persecution complex, although he admitted to taking a psychological boost from seeing a positive points total next to Hearts’ name in the league after they erased their 15-point deduction.
“It’s nicer to turn on the sports channels and see you’ve got positive points for once. We seemed to be stuck on minus seven for a long period of the season and it seemed getting to zero was never going to come. Now we’re over that hurdle and it looks better, albeit we’re still a long way behind. We’re running out of games now to try and correct that.
“We have guys who have come in and played well this season so, with players out tomorrow, this is another opportunity for them to come in and show what they can do. For the most part, they’ve come in and helped so hopefully it’s the same again.”
The player himself has had to play through some pain due to shinsplints, although that has subsided and he is ready to continue the battle against relegation.
“I feel fine now. I’ve felt okay with the shinsplints for a while, it’s not really been a great hindrance to me. The two weeks off have done me good and I’m looking forward to getting back playing.”