Jamie Walker should be ready to leave Hearts for a bigger club in the next 18 months, according to head coach Robbie Neilson.
Provided the winger stays fit and continues developing, Neilson expects him to earn a lucrative transfer at some point in 2017. Hearts will rely heavily on Walker’s creative influence tonight as they attempt to beat Birkirkara of Malta and reach the Europa League third qualifying round. The 23-year-old is an integral part of Neilson’s side and has already exerted his influence in Europe with four assists in the previous round against Infonet.
A knee injury requiring surgery hindered him last season and the player has admitted he still suffers some pain in that area. However, his fitness continues to improve in conjunction with his form. His contract expires in summer 2018 but he could well be sold on before then.
Hearts expect Walker to be targeted by clubs in England and possibly abroad if his progress continues. Neilson has set him a target of 25-30 games this season.
“Technically, Jamie’s very good, probably one of the best we’ve got here,” said the Tynecastle head coach. “I don’t like to say he is like this player or that player. He is a good player. But he’s still got a long way to go. He’s still about a year and a half away from getting a move. If he gets himself fit and he keeps playing and he keeps progressing, there is a chance that he will progress further.
“He’s been progressing well. Last season, he had a really difficult one in that he had a couple of injuries, a knee problem, that it took him a while to get over. Towards the end of the season, he started getting back into it again and was playing really well, then it recurred.
“This season for Jamie is about playing consistently, trying to get 25-30 games, trying to score goals and create more. There’s no doubt he is a talent. He is one of the most naturally gifted we’ve got here. We just need to get him playing regularly and keeping his fitness up.”
Walker and Arnaud Djoum will be key figures for Hearts this evening as they try to overcome Birkirkara in the second leg of the Europa League second qualifying round. The first leg ended 0-0 in Malta last week.
“Walker and Djoum in that central area are the two players that create for us,” explained Neilson. “When Walker is out, we have to rely more heavily on Djoum and vice versa. If we can keep the two of them fit then it gives us a lot of creativity.
“Walker can play anywhere, really. He can play as a striker, he can play as a No.10. He’s just a good player, but I think he thrives better in the centre of the park.”
Walker’s operation last December removed a small piece of bone from his knee and Neilson admitted it is a situation which needs monitoring.
“He has an issue there that he has to keep on top of, which he is doing at the minute. He just has to continue that.
“It’s been getting better. The key for us is getting him on the pitch regularly. If that means us trying to manage his training then we have to do it. He had a wee bit of bone in his knee. He had that taken out and there was a problem with his tendon.
“It’s just keeping on top of that. It’s one that might take another three or four months to really cure but, at the moment he can get through it, he can train and he can play.”