Defender Kevin McHattie expects next season’s SPFL Championship to be an unofficial Premiership 2, with Rangers and Hearts going for promotion.
The Edinburgh club are all but relegated and will join the Glasgow side in potentially Scotland’s most competitive division in August. McHattie anticipates a fierce battle.
The 20-year-old does not hide his despair at Hearts’ near certain relegation, which may even be confirmed if they lose to Hibs in the Edinburgh derby at the end of the month. The club’s financial collapse accelerated McHattie’s promotion to the senior team along with many other Riccarton academy pupils and there is no denying they would all rather continue playing top-flight football.
Nonetheless, the left-back is still able to identify some positives from life outside the Premiership. Particularly next season, when Rangers will arrive as League One winners to join relegated Hearts and others who fail to realise their promotion ambitions this year.
“I would look at it as a kind of Premiership 2, which would be great for Scottish football,” said McHattie, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “It will be sad if it does happen that Hearts go down, but I think this club can do well in the future with the fanbase here.
“The supporters have just said ‘We’ll stick by you, whatever league you’re in’. It’s great to hear that from them, but they’ve been like that from day one since we went into administration. I remember coming into the club shop at the start of the season when things were really bad and that was the messages the fans were giving us.
“They’ve pulled together and been magnificent. For that reason, I believe Hearts can have a bright future. I don’t want to see them go down, but you know the fans will be there. That day in the shop, there were maybe 100 people and their attitude was fantastic. Even away at Ross County and Inverness, we’ve had a great away support. They’ve just been outstanding this season.”
The pressure on the Hearts squad has eased slightly in recent weeks given they are adrift at the bottom of the league by some 21 points. The chances of them overhauling that deficit are all but gone, meaning the players go on to the pitch with more freedom.
“The gaffer [manager Gary Locke] just says ‘Go out and produce, go out and express yourself and see what you can do’,” continued McHattie. “We’ll have another difficult season coming up after this one, so we’ll need to see where we are. There hasn’t been any talk of playing in the Championship. The gaffer is just concentrating on the next game.
“We’ve got a bit more freedom and some younger boys like Sam Nicholson have come in and done well recently. He’s getting his chance to shine and he’s doing brilliant. That’s great for the younger players. Obviously, the more experienced one have to keep them the head and help them.”
At 20, McHattie should comfortably feel part of that younger element. Yet he has amassed almost 60 senior appearances already – including a loan spell at Alloa – and therefore feels slightly more established. “I don’t know what category I’m in. I’m probably in the middle. Danny Wilson is experienced, as are Stevo [Ryan Stevenson] and [Jamie] Hamill. They’ve all done a great job this season.
“Getting my chance to get games under my belt has been the main thing for me. I’ve learned a lot along the way. It’s great to have 50 to 60 games under my belt at a young age. Now I’ve obviously got to progress. I never expected to have played that many games. I might not even have played one first-team game at this age, but I got the chance and I took it.
“In pre-season, I was expecting just to play with the under-20s week in and week out. With the way the club is, that hasn’t happened. I’ve been thrown in at the deep end.
“When John McGlynn was here last season, he gave me a few games in the first team and I showed I can cope. He put me in and trusted me. John gave a lot of the young boys a great chance. Callum Paterson came into the team about the same time as me. John put us in against Raith Rovers in a pre-season friendly and I’d like to thank him for doing all the young boys a favour at this club.”
Locke hasn’t had his troubles to seek since replacing McGlynn at Hearts a year ago. His immediate priority would appear to be plugging a back line which has conceded ten goals in the last three games. That begins on Friday night, when Dundee United visit Tynecastle.
“We’ve got to tighten up at the back on Friday because we’ve conceded sloppy goals in the last couple of games. Hopefully our strikers can do us a favour at the opposite end,” said McHattie. “I’ve felt for the gaffer since the day he came in. He’s just got to work with what he’s got. I think he’s done a great job to re-arrange players into positions where they aren’t too comfortable. The players have produced and the manager will be happy about that.
“As a back four, I think we’re getting there. We’ve just been a wee bit sloppy in the last couple of games. We know we need to tighten up, which I’m sure we will.”