Brad McKay captained Hearts in Sunday’s friendly win over Dinamo Bucharest because he is a “leader” and a “good character”, according to head coach Robbie Neilson.
McKay is only 21 and has just one season of senior football on his CV, but the new Hearts management team clearly believe in his potential.
Neilson fielded a different team for each half against the Romanians at Leigh Sports Village and, with club captain Danny Wilson scheduled to play the second 45 minutes, McKay was handed the armband. Skippering his childhood heroes would have filled the central defender with pride, particularly in view of his rapid progress in the last year. He had just two Hearts appearances to his name this time 12 months ago.
Speaking today about the qualities he has identified in McKay since returning to Hearts as a coach last year, Neilson acclaimed the player as a natural figurehead and said he was the obvious option to deputise for Wilson.
“I like Brad, he’s a good player and he’s a leader,” said the head coach. “Being captain gave him that wee bit of responsibility on his shoulders. Danny is the club captain and he was playing in the second half, which was a decision made before the game on Sunday. We split the team so everyone got 45 minutes. Brad was the one I wanted to take the team out. He’s a centre-half and he’s a leader, good character. It was a good experience for him.”
That does not guarantee McKay a place in the team when the season starts, however. Neilson is expected to pair recent signing Alim Ozturk with Wilson in central defence for Hearts’ tilt at the Scottish Championship title. That would leave McKay and another home-grown centre-back, Jordan McGhee, fighting it out amongst the substitutes.
Competition is similarly fierce at the opposite end of the field, where Dale Carrick and Gary Oliver are challenging new recruits James Keatings and Soufian El Hassnaoui for attacking places. With Morgaro Gomis already added to the midfield, and possibly Prince Buaben to follow, Neilson will not be short of options picking his team.
“There won’t be any issues with guys upset at not playing because everyone is competing for a place in the team,” he said. “I’ve spoken to them all and said whoever’s on form and playing well will play. It doesn’t matter who you are. If a player isn’t in the team then he has to prove himself in training and reserve games to get another opportunity.
“Everyone at the club will have an opportunity to play in the team if they do well.
“The morale has been great and we’ve found that a lot of the boys are really close. Many of them have grown up together coming through the youth team and into the first team. There is a good team spirit there. A lot of the guys we’ve brought in are real good characters and have settled in really well. There is a real togetherness and the training camp in England last week was good for team bonding.
“It’s like anything, you want to win games. At the same time, we want to implement the things we’re trying to put across. The two games we played in England showed we are doing these things so we need to continue that. Naturally, if you’re playing well and winning games then team spirit comes off the back of that too.”
El Hassnaoui is unavailable for Hearts’ remaining friendlies as he recovers from a groin operation. Keatings sat out the win over the Romanians as a precaution due to a minor hamstring complaint and will hope to feature against his former club Hamilton this evening. Scott Robinson is expected to resume training before the end of the week after suffering a badly bruised leg against Dinamo.
“Scott will be fine. I’d expect him to be available later in the week,” said Neilson. “James had a wee hamstring problem so we’ve rested him in case it flared up again.”