Gary Mackay: Hearts must keep hold of flair players

Jamie Walker, right, is one player Hearts cannot afford to lose. Pic: SNS
Jamie Walker, right, is one player Hearts cannot afford to lose. Pic: SNS
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Friday’s brilliant win over Aberdeen has kept our season bubbling along nicely into the business end.

As well as having the chance to secure a return to Europe in Inverness tomorrow night, it has also kept us in with a shout of finishing second.

It was a victory that seemed unlikely in the early stages. We had to work really hard to keep ourselves in the game in the first 15 minutes because it looked like Aberdeen were going to blow us away. The crowd were growing agitated so, at the end of a week in which several of them had been hit by a virus, it would have been easy for the Hearts players to have wilted under the pressure and completely caved in. In the end, it was due to a combination of their failings in front of goal and our own resilience that we were able to turn the tide. The tactical change of moving Sam Nicholson from the left to the right in order to stop Graeme Shinnie getting forward was also important.

When we eventually got going, the crowd really responded and it ended up being a great night for everyone inside Tynecastle. We came on really strong as the game progressed and ultimately it was a real bit of quality from Jamie Walker, who put in a magnificent cross for Juanma’s second goal, that proved decisive in the game.

I really hope we can keep hold of Walker because, along with Sam Nicholson, he is generally the player that gives us our spark in the final third. He’d be very hard to replace. I think it’s important that we retain a good amount of flair to complement our physicality, especially if we’re serious about challenging at the top end for the next few years. To do that, we’ll need plenty different strings to our bow.

For the rest of this season, we’ll be trying to do to Aberdeen what they had been trying to do to Celtic in recent weeks. It’ll be a tall order to overhaul them but they might be a bit deflated, so we’ve just got to keep trying to put pressure on them and see how they handle it after the split. To keep our hopes of alive, we’ll probably have to win at Inverness tomorrow. The players won’t have the same excellent backing they had on Friday, so they will have to try and rouse themselves amid a low-key atmosphere, but they should be full of confidence, while Inverness could be a bit flat as they know they can’t make the top six. The chance to secure European qualification before the split should also give them plenty incentive.

To have beaten Aberdeen twice in a row in big games in the league and cup bodes very well indeed for the future. We’ve generally competed well in our matches against Celtic and Aberdeen this season and overall we have taken care of the supposed lesser teams in the league. We’ve got a good base to work from for next season, so hopefully a positive recruitment drive in the summer can take us to the next level. Last season we knew we had won the league well before the end of the season, which gave us a good chance to plan ahead for this season. Likewise, we’ve had a pretty good idea for some time that we’d be qualifying for Europe, so that should hopefully have given our management team a head-start in terms of preparing for next season.

We’re going to need a squad that can handle the demands of playing in Europe. The only slight concern I have is how the early start in the summer will affect us as the season goes on. To be playing a competitive match in June is ridiculous when the previous season finishes in mid-May. The fact Hearts train in a more intense manner than most other clubs in Scotland would mean a high demand being placed on the players, so it would need to be managed sensibly to prevent burnout later in the season. It’s great for the club that I’m even contemplating the supposed problems of European football just two years after we were officially relegated from the top flight. The turnaround has been remarkable.

In order to continue on our upward trajectory, we’ll have to contend with the renewed challenge of Rangers after they won promotion. Their return should increase the overall standard of the top flight and it will also hopefully cause Hearts to continue striving for improvement in order to keep ahead of them. Overall it’s an exciting period for Scottish football and hopefully Hearts continue to be prominently involved for years to come.