Brad McKay has had several days to digest the fact Hearts will play Championship football next season.
The disappointment is still hanging in the air, although it is not an unexpected feeling for the young centre-back. The only thing eclipsing it is his notion that the club will eventually return to Scottish football’s top flight as a stronger unit.
Hearts stayed bottom of the league all season after being deducted 15 points and banned from signing new players last summer for entering administration. Their slide down a division was on the cards but still left McKay and his colleagues numb when it was confirmed at Firhill on Saturday. Satisfaction at a 4-2 win over Partick Thistle was dulled by news moments after the final whistle that St Mirren had beaten Motherwell, meaning Hearts were down.
It was the biggest blow yet in a tumultuous first season at senior level for 21-year-old McKay. Like many of his fellow Riccarton academy graduates, his first-team initiation has involved instant learning under extreme pressure rather than gradual introduction. Relegation is just the latest new experience for Hearts’ youngsters to deal with.
Whilst admitting being devastated, McKay is already looking ahead in defiance. He believes that, in time, his club will re-emerge with a vengeance.
“We’ll definitely be back. If we can keep some of the older boys, strengthen the squad and keep giving younger players game time, I think we’ll come back,” he said in an exclusive Evening News interview.
“It is a tall order to come back up at the first time of asking. I don’t have a crystal ball and it’s going to be a difficult season. It might not happen in one year, but we will be back. I’m certain of that.”
To gain promotion, any team must negotiate their way through the toughest second tier in Scottish football history. Rangers and Hearts will join what is already a fiercely competitive league in which several clubs will aim for promotion.
“The Championship will be a great league next season,” continued McKay. “Dunfermline could be there, Rangers will definitely be there, plus there’s ourselves, Raith Rovers, Hamilton and a few others. It will be a really competitive league and I think some of the attendances will be better than the top flight. There are a lot of good sides in that division so it’s not going to be easy.”
McKay is one of many Hearts players out of contract this summer and is eager to sign an extension if the club can secure their own long-term future. Relegation doesn’t appear to have put him off the team he has supported since childhood.
“We’ve had a few difficult defeats this season, especially early in the season at Ross County and places like that. We’ve conceded late goals and lost some important games. We were chucked in when we were young but, as I’ve said before, that’s been a good thing for me. I’m not sure if the other boys agree, but I think they do.
“This has been a great experience for me. Getting to play for Hearts has been a fantastic experience this season and it’s made me a better player.
“As a player, it was devastating being relegated. It’s the first time I’ve experienced relegation and hopefully it’s the last. It’s a horrible feeling.
“I didn’t know till right at the end of the game on Saturday when I was over clapping our fans. One of the subs came over and said, ‘that’s it’. You would never have known we’d been relegated from the reaction of the fans. I’d never have known it was confirmed if one of the boys hadn’t come and told me because the reaction of the fans was outstanding.”
The atmosphere in the away dressing-room at Firhill was in contrast to such an impressive display against Thistle. Indeed, mixed emotions have been a common theme this season for manager Gary Locke and his young squad. McKay explained the conflicting feelings.
“It’s been a good couple of weeks for Hearts with some positives on the pitch,” he said. “We did well against Hibs and showed great spirit to come back and get a draw with ten men against Aberdeen. Saturday’s result was a very good one, which was pleasing because we played well and we were great on the ball.
“It’s a difficult one because we know we’re relegated and the day was always going to come. It was a funny atmosphere in the dressing-room because all the boys are proud of each other and proud of the fans. Yet, on the other hand, that’s it over now and we’re down. All we can do now is try to win every game through to the end of the season.
“It’s hard to take in those circumstances, with a couple of late goals from St Mirren. That’s even more devastating. It did hurt when I found out it was those two late goals which relegated us. I was gutted.
“We needed them to lose every game and they were always going to pick up a point, I thought. I wanted this wee run to keep going till after the split to keep a wee bit of excitement.
“I thought it was a great performance by the boys on Saturday, each and every one of them. We scored goals and defended well, even though the first ten to 15 minutes weren’t great. Once we got our feet on the ground, I thought we played really well and controlled the game. We gave back to the fans what they’ve given to us all season.”