One Hearts player left the Tynecastle pitch relatively content on Sunday. Like his team-mates, Jamie Walker was distraught at losing a 2-0 lead against Hibs in the Scottish Cup. The bigger picture was much brighter for the winger, however. He was finally back in competitive action after more than three months out injured.
Walker found himself thrown into a comeback as a substitute with ten minutes remaining and Hearts 2-1 ahead. He struggled for breath in a frenetic Edinburgh derby, then had to watch in agony as Paul Hanlon’s 90th-minute equaliser forced a replay. Overall though, he was simply happy to be playing once again.
For him, the season starts now. A persistent knee problem was finally cured before New Year when he underwent surgery in Bradford to remove a small section of bone which was causing discomfort. The operation was declared an instant success and Walker resumed training within days. His first-team return took a month and, although disappointed by Hearts’ late collapse at the weekend, he anticipates an exciting few months ahead.
“I’ve been out for a long time so I was just delighted to get back on the pitch,” said Walker. “Physically it was tough. I was only on for ten minutes and it was tough going. It was end-to-end and I was struggling a bit to get my breath.
“The knee has been fine, just a bit stiff. That was my first competitive game since I got injured. I played 45 minutes for the under-20 team last week but it’s not the same as coming on in an Edinburgh derby. It’s a tough game to get into but I’m feeling good now.
“It’s been a stop-start season for me and that’s been frustrating. I had a sore knee and I continued playing for a bit. Then I had to sit out again and decided to get the operation. I’m glad I’m back training and playing now and hopefully I can help the team in the weeks to come.
Walker may be thrust into the starting line-up when a depleted Hearts squad travels to the Global Energy Stadium in Dingwall tomorrow night. Igor Rossi, Blazej Augustyn and Prince Buaben are suspended, whilst captain Alim Ozturk, Arnaud Djoum, Miguel Pallardo and Sam Nicholson are all carrying injuries from Sunday.
“The games keep coming now because we’ve got a hard week coming up. We’ve got Ross County away tomorrow, then Partick Thistle at the weekend, then the replay with Hibs. Hopefully I can get more game time and help get my fitness back,” said Walker.
“I’ve done a lot of training. I’ve been back training for more than two weeks now and I’ve done a lot of fitness work. If the gaffer needs me, I’ll be ready. There are a lot of games coming up so that can help me get my fitness back gradually. I hope to be ready to start a few games in the next few weeks.”
In a stroke of impressive man-management by Hearts, Walker was granted a contract extension to help lift his morale in December. He signed a new deal to tie him to Tynecastle until summer 2018 in the midst of his injury lay-off. It has been an important motivating factor in his fightback.
“I signed the new contract when I was injured so it was good that all the staff and Robbie put faith in me when I was out. It gave me a wee lift when I was injured and couldn’t play. They could’ve left it to see how the injury was but they didn’t. That’s why I want to get back quickly now, so I can repay some of that faith.
“Sometimes it’s mentally tough. You’re sitting about the house or sitting in the physio’s room because you can’t train. You can’t let yourself get too down. You just have to keep working hard in the gym. After I got the operation, I did a lot of running and I’m just delighted it’s paid off and I’m back playing now. I’m okay watching games when I know I wouldn’t be involved. When you’re watching and you think you should be playing, it’s not good.”
His return didn’t go to plan as Hibs fought back in dramatic fashion to earn a cup replay a week tonight. Walker didn’t shirk the issue of Hearts’ collapse. “If you’re winning any game 2-0 with ten minutes to go, you should be in the next round. A few of the boys are down because it feels like a defeat. It might feel like a victory for Hibs. We just need to pick ourselves up and be ready for the replay.
“We had much more of the first half and we were the much better team. We maybe thought we had it won and sat back and invited the pressure. Fair play to Hibs, they put the pressure on and they got two goals.
“The boys are gutted. The score was 2-2, but it feels like a loss for us. We’ve got a game tomorrow to put things right, then we play again at the weekend, and then it’s the replay at Easter Road. We’re looking to pick up some league points before we play Hibs again.
“The good thing about football is you’ve always got the next game coming up to put it right. We’re looking forward to that. I’m gutted about the result but it’s a draw and we have another game at Easter Road to look ahead to. We’ll try to get through that one.”
Ross County first is the priority as Hearts seek to cement their place in third spot in the Ladbrokes Premiership. “We’re up there overnight tonight to make sure we prepare properly. Ross County beat Celtic last week and did well so we know they will make it tough for us,” said Walker.
“We’ve got quite a bit of a lead over the teams in fourth and fifth place. We’re in third but we’re a bit behind Aberdeen now. We’ll try to keep as far ahead of fourth as possible. There’s another derby coming up and if we get through that we’re into the Scottish Cup quarter-finals. There’s a lot for us to look forward to.”