AN EARLY-SEASON opportunity is gaping in front of Hearts youngster Billy King. Jamie Walker is suspended for the season’s first league match at Ibrox, meaning a position on the wing is vacant.
King is well aware of the opening, but refuses to shout about taking advantage. Quietly and efficiently, he is working to convince head coach Robbie Neilson he deserves that starting place.
The 20-year-old staked a serious claim on Saturday with a thrilling display against Annan Athletic in the Petrofac Training Cup. He scored the first goal and supplied the corner for Hearts’ third in the 3-1 victory.
Annan could not handle his direct running or dribbling and, by full-time, their left-back Iain Chisholm looked exhausted and ready for bed rather than a long journey back to Dumfriesshire.
For King, it was starting as he means to continue as the competitive season began. Annan’s status as a part-time club in League 2 should not be overlooked in the context of his performance, but a repeat against St Johnstone this Sunday will surely rubber-stamp the youngster’s selection in his favoured right-wing berth for the trip to Ibrox.
He spent much of last season as a bit-part player while other Riccarton academy graduates established themselves at first-team level. Then came three goals during the final eight games of the campaign as Walker recovered from injury. Now, King senses the chance to make his mark permanently.
“The Rangers game is less than two weeks away and before then we’ve got St Johnstone in a friendly.
“Hopefully I can continue playing well and get a chance against Rangers,” said the player in an exclusive Evening News interview.
“I’ll take things as they come. I’ll try to do well in training and, if the gaffer decides to start me, I’ll obviously do my best. I’ll take it game by game. I had a good game on Saturday so hopefully it puts me in good stead for the start of the league campaign.”
Walker’s suspension – carried over from last season – means King is well placed to capitalise.
“Of course that’s in my mind, but there’s David Smith and Sam Nicholson [pictured right] who can play in the wide areas, and Dale Carrick can play there as well,” explained King in typically unassuming manner.
“There’s plenty competition. I don’t know what the team will be, but if I get picked to start I’ll give it my best.
“If not, I’ll look to do my best if I come off the bench. It’s a case of training well, playing well, creating more goals and scoring more goals. Then we’ll see what happens as the season progresses.”
Neilson would certainly have been impressed by King’s application at the weekend. As would every one of the 6708 fans inside Tynecastle. After skinning two opponents, he lashed home the opening goal via a deflection and then delivered the corner for Callum Paterson to head Hearts’ third. In between, Osman Sow had scored a second to leave Annan looking rather overwhelmed. It was our first competitive game and I was delighted just to start the match,” said King. “I thought I did well in the first half. I slackened off a wee bit in the second but overall it was a good performance from the whole team. It was good to get off to a winning start.
“I tend to concentrate on just having a good game and playing well. It was a case of starting well. The team started well and we got three goals in the first half to kill the game off. We took some of our chances and got some good goals although we should have scored more.
“Once I got the goal, I was a wee bit more confident and I was trying more things. When we had a three-goal cushion I was trying to create more goals and take a few more risks. Thankfully, it paid off on Saturday and hopefully I can continue playing well.”
Compared with the majority of last season, King looks a different player.
The confidence he discovered around Easter has stayed with him and been carried forward towards the new campaign. Sparking it all seems to have been a few seconds of class the Edinburgh derby against Hibs in March, when he scored his first senior goal.
“That was the turning point of last season,” he added. “I scored that goal, then I started against Partick Thistle away and I scored that day as well.
“That gave me loads of confidence to kick on from there. I started a few games after that and did well to stay in the team for a bit.
“Before the Hibs goal I was struggling a bit with confidence. I was coming on in games and I wasn’t doing great. I wasn’t doing well at all, in fact. I was coming off the bench and not really doing anything. I came on in the derby and scored and that really helped me kick on. I got a lot of confidence from it so hopefully I can get a few more starts this season than I did last year.”
He should be encouraged by the fact Hearts have recruited goalkeepers, a centre-back, midfielders and strikers this summer but chose not to sign any wingers.
“It’s a bit of a weird one,” admitted King. “We’ve brought in players in a lot of positions but we haven’t brought in any wide players.
“We already have plenty competition amongst the wingers because there are four out-and-out wide players in the squad already [King, Walker, Smith and Nicholson].
“It’s just the same as last season and I think we’re all more experienced and all getting better as players. The gaffer could pick any of the four of us to start, to be fair.
“I’ll be delighted if I was to start the first couple of games [against Rangers and Hibs] because they are two massive matches to play in. I’ve only started one derby before [at Easter Road in April] and I was really nervous before it. I know the feeling now because I’m a wee bit more experienced. I had a run of games in the team towards the end of last season and that’s given me a wee bit more confidence to start this campaign.”