KING of the Castle would be stretching it after just three senior appearances, yet Billy King is entitled to feel he has scaled a momentous height already in his prospering football career. At the age of 18, he is in Hearts’ first team on merit and in many ways fits the identikit of the perfect Riccarton academy graduate.
King grew up in Edinburgh and supported Hearts since childhood, attending games with his father from the age of six and dreaming of gracing the hallowed Tynecastle turf. His family are staunch Jambos. He even has a younger brother, Adam, on the fringes of the first-team squad.
He has been a Hearts player from the age of ten alongside many of those who are now his first-team colleagues – Jason Holt, Jamie Walker and Fraser Mullen among them. More than that, King is mature, sensible and articulate. Not to mention a hell of a talent.
The beads of sweat on his forehead indicate a touch of nervousness in his first-ever interview. He prefers to express himself on a football field rather than a quiet corner of Riccarton. The only other place to find him is chewing chicken in Nando’s with Holt, Walker and Mullen for company. Their collective success is built on being a close-knit group.
King’s individual ability has been there for all to see in Hearts’ past three games against Dundee, Ross County and Dundee United. The winger is certain to start against Kilmarnock at Tynecastle tomorrow, continuing a dream 12 years in the making.
“Since I was six, my dad used to take me to all the Hearts games. We had season tickets and everything, so this is all just my dream now,” he told the Evening News. “I’ve been playing with Fraser, Jamie and Jason since I was about ten. We’ve all been at Hearts since we were very young and came through together.
“We all know how each other plays and that helps when you’re in the first team. It also helps when you’re nervous going out on to the pitch and you have those guys alongside you.
“We all know what to expect from each other and we help settle each other down. We socialise together off the pitch, go for a Nando’s now and again, but that’s about it.”
Adam, of course, is following in big brother’s footsteps. “He has been in the squad and been on the bench once, so he’s doing really well, too,” continued King. “He can play centre midfield or right-back. We’re both die-hard Hearts fans and grew up supporting the club. All our family follow Hearts. Our mum and dad are both really proud.”
John McGlynn, the Hearts manager, promoted King from the under-20 squad due to his creativity and attacking threat.
“It has just been a matter of timing because he was the one in form,” said McGlynn. “He has got great energy levels, great fitness and two good feet. Hopefully, with a bit more experience, he’ll be more direct
“He has scored goals at under-20 level, so he does have a goal in him. He he has been threatening to score for the first team, so we’re hoping he’s going to produce one soon. He can certainly assist with goals.
“He also works hard defensively. In the modern game, you can’t carry any passengers. Everyone has got to work their socks off within the team set-up and Billy is part of that.”
King describes himself along similar lines and is acutely aware that wingers can no longer afford to be “luxury players”. “I’m just like a winger, a typical winger. Not an old-fashioned winger, but I’d say I’m more a modern one.” One who tracks back, then? “Yip.”
McGlynn’s treatment of young players like King is critical to their development. “It has been a surprise being in the team, but I’m grateful for the chance the gaffer’s given me,” said King, a Scotland Under-19 internationalist.
“The fans have been great. With all the young boys coming in, it’s going to take time before we start firing on all cylinders and getting good results. I think we’ve been playing really well, but the results have still to come.
“I had no idea the gaffer was thinking of throwing me in. I was on the training pitch the day before the Dundee match and I was only back from injury about a week.
“He told me I was in when we were working on shape the day before the game, and that was it. I had a sleepless night that night.
“There have been a lot of young players in the team recently. I’d been working hard every day, training with the first team and just hoping that my chance would come. I’ve done my best so far, so I want to keep that up.
“At the start of the season, with the club’s financial situation, us young players knew we’d have to come in and step up to the plate. I had an idea that maybe I’d get a chance if I was playing well. It has come in January and I’m really pleased.
“If you’re doing the right things, the manager will tell you to keep going and praise you. If there’s something you need to work on, he’ll point it out to you and give you tips to make you a better player.”
King admits being taken aback by his sudden elevation to senior football.
“You have more responsibility. More people know you so you need to act responsibly when you’re representing the club. That’s what I try to do but it takes a bit of getting used to.”
His feet return firmly to the ground every time he has to hoof hampers of kit on to the team bus after games. Not yet King of the Castle, but Billy King is rising steadily.