Voted player of the year by Hearts players and fans, Jamie MacDonald is established and secure as the club’s first-choice goalkeeper. He didn’t bat an eyelid yesterday morning when Craig Gordon strolled into the Riccarton dressing room.
The 31-year-old rejoined his formative club for training seven years since a British record transfer to Sunderland. MacDonald well remembers being understudy to Gordon and several of his successors, but now he is indisputably in command of the goalkeeping gloves.
He dominated Hearts’ player of the year award ceremony on Sunday night, collecting Player of the Year awards from both supporters and his own team-mates. Aged 28, he has been No.1 at Tynecastle for two and a half years and is rightly comfortable that his position is not under threat.
When a £9million keeper with 40 international caps walks through the door and you don’t flinch, you know you feel secure. In fact, MacDonald encouraged Gordon to return to Riccarton after a spell training with Rangers. He is eager to help his close friend reach the top again after two years of persistent knee problems.
“Craig asked me the other week if it would be okay and I told him it’s not a problem. He’s just trying to get himself fit and make sure he trains as much as possible. I’m not too worried about the big man,” laughed MacDonald.
“It’s good to have him about and it’s just nice to see him back training and playing football again. I’m sure he will get picked up by somebody over the summer and he deserves to because he’s worked so hard for the last couple of years to get himself fit.”
On his own personal rise, MacDonald recalled wondering if he would ever make an impact at Hearts whilst kicking his heels as reserve keeper behind Gordon. “There were times here when I thought, ‘am I ever going to play in the first team?’ he admitted. “I’ve been No.1 for the last two and a half years and I hope I’ve shown I’m a worthy No.1.
“It’s nice to get individual awards. I’ve been here a long time so it’s always good to get a bit of personal recognition from the fans and from my team-mates. I’ve won the Players Player of the Year award two years in a row now so it’s great to know what your colleagues think of you. I’m so proud of the two achievements and I can’t thank everybody enough for voting.”
Tonight he goes for a second successive clean sheet following Sunday’s 5-0 win over Kilmarnock. Partick Thistle are the visitors to Tynecastle, where they will encounter an unusual air of optimism. It is difficult to recall a club so upbeat since being relegated from the top flight but Hearts are defiantly confident that their future is bright as they wait to exit administration.
“It is a bizarre situation and the whole year has just been strange,” said MacDonald. “The improvement is there within the players and hopefully the club is about to come out of administration. There is about one per cent to go on that so things are looking brighter for the club.
“It was the 15-point deduction that was more the killer. We always knew it was going to be such a hard task. I know our recent form has improved but there’s no denying it’s been difficult. There is more optimism than anything else now.
“The Championship is going to be a great league next season with ourselves and Rangers and possibly Dunfermline in there. For me, it’s going to be a better league than the Premiership in terms of excitement levels.”
If they can carry their current form into the new campaign, they stand a pretty decent chance. Five wins and a draw from the last six matches outline the confidence MacDonald is referring to. He feels Hearts began to peak just four weeks ago, ironically against Partick Thistle on the day their relegation was confirmed.
“That was probably the first game where the confidence peaked,” said MacDonald of the 4-2 win. “The boys were saying to themselves, ‘we can beat all these teams’. We played really well throughout the game, even though we had a bad start and lost an early goal. After that, we were different class. In fact, up until Sunday there, I’d say that was probably our best performance of the season. The tables have turned a bit now because Partick Thistle are fighting to avoid the play-off spot. They will make it difficult tonight but, with the confidence we have, hopefully we can get another win.
“A lot of the boys have improved and that’s the reason we’re doing so well just now. I hear loads of people saying it’s because the pressure is off. For me, that’s not the case. Our form turned around mid-January. It was the lead up to Christmas that really killed us.
“We’ve put together a really good run recently and I think that’s down to the boys all improving and just getting a couple of wins. That’s built confidence and confidence is everything in football. You can see the guys are playing with lots of confidence right now.
“It’s not frustrating that it’s come so late in the season. I think it was just inevitable that it was going to happen that way. It was always going to take time for the boys to get the experience and the know-how and adjust to the physical side of the Premiership.
“The physical improvement has been dramatic and the future is a bit brighter now. The boys who are definitely going to be here next year will go in with a lot more confidence, knowing they definitely will compete.”