Jamie Walker’s emergence as one of the most prodigious attacking talents in Scottish football comes as little surprise to those who worked with him prior to his breakthrough into Hearts’ first team three and a half years ago.
The West Edinburgh boy wasn’t slow in signalling his intent as a teenager within the club’s academy and his impressive season-on-season progress since being given his Hearts debut by John McGlynn in August 2012 has taken him to a level where, three months shy of his 23rd birthday, he is consistently delivering on his early promise.
An inspirational burst of five goals in his last six league games has fuelled talk of a Scotland call-up and simultaneously cast Walker as the new talisman of a Hearts side motoring relentlessly towards Europe. Anyone who clapped eyes on him as a raw youngster will tell you his surge to prominence was always on the cards.
Fellow academy graduate Brad McKay certainly won’t forget his introduction to the little attacker. “On my first day of full-time training with Hearts, in summer 2010, I didn’t know who anyone was,” the defender told the Evening News. “We did a crossing and finishing exercise with defenders set up in position. Darren Murray [the former youth coach] was taking it and one boy peeled off me, took the ball on the half-turn, chipped the ball up on his first touch and volleyed it on off the bar from about 30 yards out. I just thought ‘wow’.
“Straight away, one of the other boys said to me ‘that’s what happens if you don’t get tight to Jamie Walker’. I’d heard of him and Jason Holt before I arrived at Hearts, but that was the moment I found out who Jamie Walker was. He’s been a standout for as long as I’ve known him. Through all the age-groups, he seemed to be miles ahead of most of the other attackers. Him and Billy King were always the two standouts for me. They had that something special that not many other players have.”
Walker made a knack of creating a positive first impression. When Hearts, then under the charge of Paulo Sergio, farmed out Jason Holt, Denis Prychynenko, David Smith and Walker to Raith Rovers, then managed by McGlynn, in the 2011/12 campaign, it was Walker who made comfortably the biggest impact of the quartet, featuring in 23 matches – ten from the start – and scoring three goals. Former Hearts midfielder Paul Smith, who was McGlynn’s assistant in Kirkcaldy, explained that it was impossible not to be impressed by the then 18 year-old.
“Myself and John McGlynn had kept in touch with people at Hearts, so we had heard of most of the young boys coming through,” said Smith. “We’d heard good reports about Jamie and after a bounce game in his first training session with us, his ability was there for all to see. You could see he was a special player.
“A lot of players can go past players, but Jamie’s also a fantastic finisher and he’s got the ability to lift his head and play a good final pass or cross. He had a wee bit of cockiness about him, which was good. He had real confidence and belief in himself and John and myself liked that in a player.
“Every time he got the ball, he excited the fans. I remember one day sitting with John in the office after a game and we were talking about Jamie and how we both felt he could go as far as he wanted in the game. Sometimes with talented boys, it’s attitude that holds them back, but Jamie had the right attitude from the start. He was a fantastic boy to work with.
“We had the likes of David Goodwillie on loan, who was a bit different and hard to handle at times, but Jamie and the rest of the boys who came in from Hearts were all good boys who had had a good upbringing at Riccarton. There was no doubt in my mind that, if he kept his attitude right, he could go on and have a fantastic career.”
Walker has been highly rated by every manager since breaking through at Hearts, with he and Callum Paterson the only homegrown youngsters who have been able to remain prominent throughout the reigns of McGlynn, Gary Locke and Robbie Neilson. His value hasn’t been missed by team-mates either, with McKay explaining that Hearts defenders would dread coming up against the little maverick in training.
“He was a nightmare to play against in training,” said McKay, now on loan at Dunfermline from St Johnstone. “When Robbie Neilson came in, he had the defenders doing loads of one-v-ones in training. It’s a nightmare when you’re up against tricky wingers like Jamie, Billy and Sam Nicholson. It’s not what a centre-back wants to be doing anyway.
“Jamie can play on the wing, but if it was up to me, I’d always have him in the No.10 role and let him roam around and cause problems. When he’s on his day, you just want to give him the ball. When we were struggling at the bottom of the table in the administration season, our main thought was to get the ball to Jamie. He was playing on the left wing, coming inside, and he was unbelievable for a spell. That season was probably the making of a lot of boys in that team. Like most of us, Jamie’s form and confidence took a bit of a dip that year, but, as they say, form is temporary, class is permanent.”
In an era where physicality appears to be a prerequisite to prospering at the top level, McKay believes Walker has enough strings to his bow to make the most of his relatively slight build. “I don’t know why he’s so good because, physically, he’s not the most athletic or powerful guy,” he said. “He’s just an incredibly talented football player. He’s not the smartest guy off the pitch, but he couldn’t be any more intelligent on it. He just belongs on a football pitch.
“He used to hate going to the gym when we were younger. He’d say ‘throw me the ball’ while we were in the gym. He’d rather be doing ball work than gym work any day of the week. But it’s credit to him that, although he doesn’t necessarily like that side of it, he does his work in the gym and he works extremely hard.
“He’s adapted well to all the triple sessions that Robbie Neilson puts on. Because of the position he plays, he can’t build himself up too much, physically. You see it all the time where boys start hammering the gym and they can’t move as freely and their agility and their balance suffer. Jamie just needs to keep digging away at the gym to keep his legs strong and powerful, and he’ll be fine. He can go as far as he wants to go.”
McKay explained that Walker has not allowed himself to get carried away by his scintillating start to his Hearts career. He believes that becoming a father 16 months ago, while aged just 21, has had a steadying effect on him. “He’s a really nice guy but for how well he does on the pitch, he’s really quiet off it,” said McKay. “He’ll come out with a few funny comments now and again but he generally he keeps himself to himself. I think the birth of his son has done him the world of good because he’s maturing really well as a person and as a player. He’s not the sort of guy who would have veered off track anyway but guys like Darren Murray, Gary Locke, Robbie Neilson and [assistant coach] Stevie Crawford have all done their bit to keep him going in the right direction.”
McKay is thrilled to see his friend in the form of his life following an injury-disrupted start to the season. “It was frustrating for him and Hearts that he’s struggled with injury for a while because he’s a key player for them as we can see at the moment,” he continued. “I’m not surprised he missed out on the Scotland squad [announced last week] because he’s been injured, but he’s got to be very close. Everybody can see that and I think he’ll be able to feel that himself. He’s just got to keep his head down and do what he does best. His form right now won’t do him any harm at all.”
As a Hearts supporter, Smith has enjoyed watching Walker rack up 112 appearances at Tynecastle since his first-team initiation at Raith. “Jamie’s kicked on and improved every season since John gave him his debut at Hearts,” said the former Rovers coach, who is currently out of football. “He’s been particularly consistent over the past year and a half. I think, with the ability he had, he would have made it even if Hearts didn’t have financial difficulties. Over the years, Hearts have always given youth a chance. But it will certainly have helped him that he’s played so many games. He’ll have well over 100 games under his belt already. I wouldn’t want to see him go, but I’ll be very surprised if there’s not a big offer made for Jamie from a club down south in the summer.”