The memories are still fresh, the Scottish Cup winner’s medal still glistening, the Player of the Year trophies still on the mantelpiece.
Jamie MacDonald’s Hearts career is over, but, as Falkirk’s new goalkeeper, he returns to the stadium where he became a hero this weekend. A warm welcome from the home support is guaranteed, and not only because of his part in Falkirk’s win at Easter Road last Saturday.
Hearts’ decision to release MacDonald when Ann Budge and Craig Levein took charge in May continues to perplex many supporters. He was both fans’ and players’ player of the year last season, but, following the club’s relegation from the Scottish Premiership, was deemed surplus to requirements by incoming director of football Levein. After taking several weeks to digest the fact his 12-year spell as a Hearts player had ended, he signed a one-year deal with Falkirk.
Some saw that as a step down. Kilmarnock offered a chance to remain in the Premiership but MacDonald saw an opportunity at Westfield. Not only an opportunity to participate in the most exciting second tier in Scottish football history, but also a chance to challenge for a league title. Whilst the majority suspect Rangers, Hearts and Hibs will compete for the league and automatic promotion, the goalkeeper is convinced Falkirk are genuine contenders despite their modest budget.
Their credentials were stated in last Saturday’s 1-0 win at Easter Road, which followed a 2-0 home defeat against a Rangers team they played off the park for long spells. Saturday will provide the sternest test yet. Hearts have three wins from three Championship fixtures thus far and MacDonald is eager to see what his old club have to offer. These are the games which persuaded him to continue his career in the Championship.
“It will be the first time I’ve been at Tynecastle and not been a Hearts player. It’s going to be very strange,” he told the Evening News. “I’m looking forward to it, all the same. That was one of the reasons I wanted to go to Falkirk because I knew there would be these games, like last week at Easter Road and now Saturday at Tynecastle.
“It was one of the factors in my decision to go to Falkirk. Firstly, it was a chance to go to a team that was going to be challenging. I think we will challenge for the league this year. I knew Falkirk were a good team and I knew they were unlucky not to go up last season because they had a chance to win the league, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the actual standard of the team.
“It’s an excellent young football team who try to play the right way. We’ve been a bit unlucky so far and we don’t have as many points as we’d like. If we keep that standard of performance up then we’ll win more than we’ll lose and we’ll definitely be up there.
“For me, the Championship is just the more attractive league. Twelve of our 36 league matches are against Rangers, Hearts and Hibs. That’s a third of the season. No disrespect to teams in the top flight, but you won’t play in front of more than 4000 or 5000 unless you’re at Celtic Park, Pittodrie or maybe Tannadice.
“Falkirk were pretty much sold out for Rangers and I’d imagine it will be the same against Hearts and Hibs. Last week there was almost 10,000 at Easter Road and I imagine it will be close to a full house at Tynecastle on Saturday given Hearts’ start.”
He knows the passion of the Tynecastle support well. The stadium was his home for 12 years and he was rightly admired for working his way from youth initiative player to Scottish Cup winner. “I vaguely remember joining Hearts at 16 when I left school,” recalled MacDonald, now 28. “Six or seven from my youth development team were going in full-time, guys like Christophe Berra, Marco Pelosi, Ryan Gay, Chris Gardner and Ryan Kennedy all came from the one youth side.
“John McGlynn, who was youth coach at the time, brought us in to Tynecastle to do extra training during June that year before we started full-time in July, just to make sure we knew what the standard was physically. That was the first time I’d really been at the stadium and been out on the park. It was June 2002.”
He took almost a decade to establish himself as first-choice goalkeeper, largely down to the commanding displays of his close friend, Craig Gordon. Not until early 2012 did MacDonald become Hearts’ No.1. He held that position for two years, took a pay cut when the club entered administration and fought bravely against relegation before being released three months ago along with several experienced team-mates. He won’t enter Tynecastle feeling like he has anything to prove, however.
“I don’t feel that at all. Hearts were good to me,” he stressed. “I’ve spent most of my career there and some of my happiest times in football were there. Things like the cup final win you never forget. I was at the club so long, I don’t feel I’ve got a point to prove. The club decided they wanted to go down a different route in the summer and change things, which you can’t really argue with. That’s the decision they made and it’s time to move on. I just want to do my best for Falkirk now and hopefully we can be up there challenging during this season.”