Jamie Walker candidly admits he relied on talent alone to become a professional footballer.
Whilst less capable peers worked on fitness and changed diets to make progress, the winger knew his natural ability would eventually take him into the Hearts first team. That is no longer enough.
In order to improve and take his career to the next level, Walker is adopting a far more professional outlook. At the age of 23, he is already a key player at Tynecastle but is mindful of a persistent knee problem which has still not fully subsided ten months since surgery. He wants to give himself every advantage possible.
As such, he has changed his diet and nutrition, started preparing and cooking his own meals, and avoiding fizzy juice and sweets. The changes are relatively small but are intended to make a big difference. Walker wants Hearts to mount a sustained challenge in the Ladbrokes Premiership this season and is eager to play his part.
“It’s something I’ve worked on,” he said, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “Before, I knew I had ability and I thought I could not really do the other part of the game off the pitch, like the fitness and nutrition. I’m trying to put it all together now so hopefully it will benefit me.
“Since Robbie Neilson and the other coaches came in at Hearts, I’ve realised the other side of the game. Obviously I’m getting a bit older now and I’ve realised I need to put that stuff into my game as well.
“I’ve not really cut out anything. It’s just cooking, really - making and preparing meals. I know I have to avoid fizzy juice and sweets. You just can’t do that now. I’ve tried to improve that side as much as I can and hopefully it will show in my game.”
Walker has a young family to support so sweet treats are always likely to be nearby. He has his own plan to ensure he isn’t tempted, though. “I’ll either just leave the shopping to my missus, or I’ll just avoid going shopping when I’m hungry in case I end up picking the wrong stuff up,” he laughed.
The more mature attitude has drawn praise from Neilson and other coaches at Riccarton. Walker has always been regarded as naturally gifted, so taking a more professional approach in line with that is exactly what his superiors want.
“Jamie’s really looking after himself now and acting like a professional about the club,” said Neilson. “He looks after his diet and looks after himself. I can see him going from strength to strength.
“He’s still a young boy. I think his natural talent has got him to a level and it can probably take him higher again. He knows that if he wants to really go to the top level, he has to look after all aspects like fitness and nutrition.”
Management are happy to offer help, which is why Walker was left out of the starting line-up for Hearts’ 2-0 defeat at Kilmarnock last Wednesday. It was decided not to risk his knee on Rugby Park’s astroturf surface but he returned at the weekend for a pulsating 3-3 draw in the Highlands against Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
The player admits to the odd pang of pain from the injury despite an operation last Christmas to remove a small piece of bone. “I’m hopefully getting over it now but now and again I get a wee bit of pain,” he explained. “It’s not good but, as the gaffer has said, it’s something we need to manage.
“I’m hoping it might be away by the end of the year. I just need to speak with the gaffer and let him know when I’m feeling it. Maybe I need to sit out some games, like I did last Wednesday. That will keep me more fresh and ready for the other games.
“We’re a bit disappointed after Saturday. We thought that, when we got it back to 3-3, we could’ve pushed on and got another one. I think the goals we lost were pretty poor so, to get a point in the end, we’re reasonably happy.
“We knew it was obviously going to be more difficult after beating Inverness 5-1 at Tynecastle. They weren’t just going to roll over and let us beat them again. They were going to make it physical and we had to deal with that.”
Hearts must also adapt to the fact they are firmly regarded as a scalp by most other Scottish teams. Just 12 months ago they were Premiership newcomers from the Championship, but their stock rose rapidly as they finished third and reached the Europa League qualifying rounds.
The club’s away form continues to torture those involved. Only five times have they won away from Tynecastle in 2016. Part of the reason for that statistic is that the likes of Inverness, Kilmarnock and others raise their game when Hearts come to town.
“I don’t know what it is about our away form. Even last year we struggled a little when we travelled,” said Walker. “We just need to keep going and try to make sure we’re picking up points. We’re obviously one of the better teams in the league and, as I said, after we beat Inverness 5-1, they weren’t going to let us do that again.
“When the bigger teams come to their place they up their game. When you play for Hearts they’re a big club and, going away from home, you’re a bit of a scalp. We still need to get used to that.
“We’re looking for a positive result at home this Saturday. We want to win every game and we know St Johnstone are going to make it tough. Hopefully we can pick up three points to take us into the international break.”
Hearts go into the game in third place and appear to be involved in a mini league of their own with Rangers, Aberdeen and St Johnstone in the battle to finish second. Only one point separates those four, while Celtic are already nine clear at the top.
“You see the quality Celtic have. They went away to Ross County with half a team and won 4-0. We’ll just keep plugging away,” said Walker. “I think we definitely need to improve away from home, though. That’s one point out of six in our last two games. If we can improve that then we can push up the table because at home we’re always strong.”