Billy King insists Hearts won’t allow themselves to be unnerved by Rangers’ verbal grenades.
The two sides meet in a mouth-watering top-of-the-Championship showdown at Tynecastle today, with leaders Hearts, who have been ahead of Rangers ever since their victory at Ibrox on the opening day of the season, sitting six points clear of their second-placed visitors
Rangers players have recently questioned whether Hearts have the mental strength to maintain a title challenge to the end, the most notable instance coming last week when their defender, Darren McGregor, said: “My question would be when the pressure starts tightening and the points deficit gets down, can they handle it?”
Rangers had the chance to reduce the deficit to one point when they hosted Alloa last Saturday, but they were held to a draw and Hearts duly capitalised later that evening by winning at Falkirk to open up the current six-point gap.
“Rangers questioned our bottle last week but they drew at home to Alloa and we went to Falkirk and won, so that was a big statement from us,” said winger King. “I tend not to pay much attention to anything that’s coming out of Ibrox. We’re just concentrating on our matches and trying to do our talking on the park.”
There are no grand boasts from King about how Hearts will fare today or over the course of the season. He is confident in both his own ability and that of his team, but knows that there is little to be gained from shouting from the rooftops about what they can achieve. Nothing will change on that front, even if Hearts win today’s match and surge nine points clear at the summit.
“Our main aim is to win the league,” he said. “All we’ve done so far is make a good start, but that means nothing unless we win the league. We’re keeping our feet on the ground just now. If we win this one we go nine points clear, which would be a nice cushion, but there’s still over half the season to go. There will still be a lot of twists and turns to come. At the end of the season, I think it will be us, Hibs and Rangers challenging for the title. Nothing will be set in stone after this game, so we’ll just be keeping our feet on the ground.”
This will be the highest-stakes match of 20-year-old King’s fledgling career so far, but he is in no mood to allow the magnitude of the occasion to alter his mindset. “I think this will be the biggest game of my career, but it’s still just another three points we’re playing for,” he said. “We’re not really paying attention to the hype about the game being the biggest in Scotland. We’re trying to play it down. It’s just another game for us and another three points we can win. We’ve prepared for it the same as every other game.
“I’m not sure how the game will pan out. We play different to Rangers. They’re more direct and we play a more patient, passing style. We can also play direct if we want to. I think it will be a really tight game, much like the first game of the season.”
Hearts won that Ibrox showdown in August 2-1, courtesy of a last-minute winner by Osman Sow. That victory kicked off a run in which the Tynecastle side have exceeded all expectations. After 13 league games, they remain unbeaten and have collected 35 points from a possible 39. King sensed in pre-season that good times were in store as director of football Craig Levein and head coach Robbie Neilson led the rebuild of the squad following Ann Budge’s takeover.
“At the start of the season I felt we were in good shape,” he said. “We had been playing some really good football in pre-season and the players that came in added a lot to the squad. We were confident going into that Rangers game at the start of the season – everyone was buzzing for it. This is a completely different game, though. It’s at Tynecastle and we’ve both played a few more games than we had back then. It could go either way – it will be a tight game.”
King will be hoping it goes the same way as the last occasion an unbeaten, table-topping Hearts team hosted Rangers. Back in September 2005, when King was just an 11-year-old boy dreaming of playing for the Jambos, George Burley’s Hearts team had won their first seven games of the SPL season ahead of a visit by Alex McLeish’s Rangers side. An early header by Roman Bednar proved enough to maintain the Tynecastle side’s stunning start in a campaign in which they ultimately finished second to Celtic and qualified for the Champions League.
“I went to a few Hearts-Rangers games as a boy when I was a season-ticket holder,” said King. “It’s always a great atmosphere for these type of games – these are the games you want to play in. I remember watching on television when Bednar scored the winner against Rangers. It was an unbelievable atmosphere, absolutely electric. I’m buzzing for this one and the fans will be buzzing as well. These are the games you want to play in.”
King has played a significant part in Hearts’ strong start to the season. He has scored five goals in all competitions and has started 12 of the 13 league games thus far. Having been a peripheral figure for much of last season, the Portobello boy admits he has exceeded his personal expectations in establishing himself as a first-choice under Neilson. He feels the general improvement in Hearts’ circumstances since overcoming the trials and tribulations of administration has helped him flourish to such impressive effect.
“I didn’t expect to play as big a part as I have done this season,” he admitted. “I thought Sam [Nicholson] and Jamie [Walker] would be playing ahead of me, but thankfully I’ve taken my chance. I’ve been good this season compared to last season. I thought I was really poor last season, when my confidence was low and I wasn’t believing in myself. This season that’s changed. I did my best in pre-season, got in the team and I’ve managed to keep my place.
“The manager’s helped me a lot. Playing in a good team, with a lot of good new players, and playing a really nice style of play is also helping. The style of the team suits the way I play and I’m also scoring a few goals, which is nice.”