Robbie Neilson hailed Jamie Walker as Hearts’ most technically-gifted player as he tipped the on-song attacker for “a massive future” in football.
Hearts head coach Neilson has been buoyed by the way the 21-year-old has flourished in recent months and believes the Hearts academy graduate has benefited from increased maturity and focus this season.
Walker has been a mainstay of his team’s starting XI since September and has scored five goals in his past seven matches. His burgeoning stock was underlined in January when he was linked with a move to Spanish side Real Betis.
“Jamie has been great,” said Neilson. “His workrate has improved and his fitness levels have improved. I spoke to him in pre-season about where I believe he can get to in football and what he needs to do to get there.
“I think he has really pushed on this season. He has a kid now and it has given him a focus to really push himself as far as he can go in his career. He can play out wide or as a No.10. He has the ability to excel in any of those positions and is probably technically the best player we have at the football club.”
Walker has even earned a nod of approval from his cultured team-mate Miguel Pallardo, the former Valencia and Levante midfielder. “I know that [assistant head coach] Stevie [Crawford] was speaking to Miguel about Jamie Walker and he was raving about him,” said Neilson. “Miguel has played 100 La Liga games and has been in Spain for ten years – and he believes Jamie is one of the best he has seen when it comes to moving the ball, protecting the ball and putting it in the right areas.
“I think if he can continue to work hard and get his fitness levels as high as they can go, then I see him having a massive future in the game.”
Meanwhile, Neilson is savouring the prospect of having a near-full-strength squad to choose from as the season nears its business end. With Kevin McHattie, Osman Sow and Soufian El Hassnaoui fit again, Dale Carrick is the only long-term injury absentee.
“We are going to be taking guys to games now who won’t even get in the 18,” said the head coach. “There will be two or three guys who should be playing week-in, week-out that won’t even be in the squad. But that is the reality of having a big squad and we all have to respect each other.
“It’s a great position to be in for the run-in. With Kevin [McHattie] and Ossie [Sow] back, we are looking good, and it would be great if we can get Dale [Carrick] back before the end of the season.”
Prince Buaben is likely to join Carrick on the sidelines for today’s home match against Cowdenbeath as he recovers from a staved toe suffered against Queen of the South last weekend. “It doesn’t look like he will make this weekend’s game, but it’s just a stave, so it is more of a pain issue,” said Neilson.