Hearts’ last three games have allowed Brad McKay to ram some harsh words back down people’s throats. He’s enjoyed doing so immensely.
Those who had concerns about the defender’s reinstatement to the starting line-up have been silenced by his contribution to three wins and two clean sheets against Raith Rovers, Falkirk and Rangers.
McKay admits being slightly miffed to hear that people were questioning whether he would ever play for Hearts again. For weeks on end, the 21-year-old was left out of matchday squads and forced into some soul-searching before fighting back. He didn’t manage a single senior appearance between August 30 and November 8, when head coach Robbie Neilson recalled him to face Raith at Tynecastle.
Since then, McKay has taken plenty satisfaction from proving his doubters wrong. None more so than last week when he helped stifle Rangers’ forwards Kenny Miller, Jon Daly, Kris Boyd and Nicky Clark in Hearts’ 2-0 win at Tynecastle.
“A lot of people had me written off,” he said in an exclusive Evening News interview. “I’ve seen a lot of comments on Twitter from people saying, ‘you’ve changed my mind’ and ‘you’ve won me over’. My mate told me a few things as well about people being concerned that I was starting matches. They thought others should be playing instead.
“As I said before, I’ve just been doing my job. A lot of people have said I played great [against Rangers] and I thought I had a steady game, but I didn’t think I was anything special. I kept everything simple, defended well first and foremost and kept the ball. That’s all I did.
“I said to my mate that I didn’t think I played especially well, but when you keep a clean sheet and you play well then it’s flagged up. I was delighted with the three points, that’s the main thing, and another clean sheet.
“Last season was a completely different set-up here and a different team. The team has been winning this season and I haven’t played so much. The players who have gone in have done well. Maybe the fans and a few others thought the people who have been in the team should have been in again. I’ve been working really hard behind the scenes and so have a few of the other boys. I’ve been in the gym and doing other things to improve.
“To not even know I’ve been written off by some people saying ‘I didn’t think he’d have played again’ and things like that, it’s nice to prove people wrong. It’s a great feeling to prove someone wrong after they write you off. I think it’s because I’ve played in games that we’ve won now. Last season, we lost a lot more games than we won. The team is flying now and to play in a game of that magnitude against Rangers and win has played a big part in why people are saying these things.”
Part of the reason McKay has been able to step back into the Hearts team and look comfortable is that he refused to lose his self belief, even when he was left out of matchday squads altogether.
“I always think to myself that I don’t need anyone else to believe in me,” he explained. “There are only two people I need to believe in me when I’m playing football and that’s the manager and myself. As long as I believe in myself, first and foremost, I’ll do well. If you lose belief, it becomes extremely difficult to motivate yourself for things – for training, for games, for the gym, anything like that. If you believe in yourself and do the right things day in and day out in the gym and on the training field, I think it will show on the pitch.”
He is certain to keep his place this week for another high-octane occasion. Celtic visit Tynecastle for a Scottish Cup fourth-round tie which brings back painful memories. The two teams met at the same venue in the same round of the same competition a year ago and McKay will never forget it.
“I think the 7-0 was the all-time low,” he said. “Celtic were unbelievable that day. I was blown away watching their performance in the first half. Some of the mistakes we were making weren’t helping but watching from the bench, I was thinking ‘what are we going to do to stop them’.”
McKay was introduced at half-time and told to plug the gaps. He admits it was a daunting prospect. “It took for us to put a third centre-back in, so that meant we had four centre-backs on the park for the second half. One of them [Dylan McGowan] was playing holding midfield and was told not to move. I was told to go on and stop us conceding any more goals.
“I was warming up at the time and I was the only defender on the bench so I thought I might get chucked on. What was going through my mind was ‘I don’t know how I’m going to stop them’. They were on a mission that day. Celtic are always up for games at Tynecastle, they always have been. They scored a penalty and a deflection in the second half but it wasn’t a great day. The club has come a long way since then and hopefully on Sunday we can give Celtic a run for their money this time.
“It’s always a strange atmosphere when Celtic come to Tynecastle. The worst one was when the guy came on the pitch [to attack Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager]. That was a really hostile atmosphere that night. You can also get a really good atmosphere when Celtic come and fill their section.”
Is a Rangers-Celtic double possible for Hearts? “It will be a tough task,” said McKay. “We took care of the Rangers game after they were talking about whether we had the bottle and saying they were going to catch us. I think we’ve done really well to just keep our minds focused on the job. We did our talking on the pitch.
“I’m not going to say we’re going to beat Celtic now, but we are going well at the moment. I really do believe in this team and I’m seriously enjoying playing in this side. It would be a massive achievement to beat both Rangers and Celtic and show just how far this team has come.”