Jamie Walker grew up watching from the stands of Tynecastle as Hearts routinely competed at the top end of the table.
Needless to say, his pride in wearing the maroon jersey on a weekly basis remains unwavering. However, the 20-year-old winger admits trying to keep fans, who have been spoiled by relative success down the years, happy, is proving a challenge for himself and his young team-mates as they battle to try and stay in the Scottish Premiership.
Supporters have had to endure a significant dip in their team’s fortunes as a result of the financial meltdown which forced the club to promote virtually its entire youth squad into the first team, regardless of whether they were suitably equipped or not. Walker is among the academy graduates who have adapted best to first-team demands and he has been the one shining light in a gloomy few weeks in which Hearts have shipped 11 goals in back-to-back defeats by Celtic and Dundee United.
As the Jambos prepare to face Inverness tomorrow in the first home game since they came under fire from their own fans following that 7-0 Scottish Cup thumping at the hands of the champions a fortnight ago, Walker admits just pulling on a Hearts jersey on a match-day is providing a real test of character for the youngsters, who have only previously known the relatively carefree environment of life in the under-20s.
“Coming through the ranks at Hearts, you don’t lose many games, so that’s something we’ve had to get used to at first-team level,” he told the Evening News. “There’s a pressure on every game now because we need the points so much, but you have to try and forget about the crowd and get on with the game. No fan likes to see their team getting beat, no matter where they are in the league. Hearts is a big club and, especially at home, the fans expect us to give anyone a game.
“There’s a massive expectation here and, even though the other teams are full of senior players, the fans still expect us to beat the likes of Ross County and Inverness at home. Sometimes it can be hard to live up to those expectations, but, as footballers, we just need to try and deal with it and do our best on the pitch.”
While some critics argue that the youthfulness of the Hearts team shouldn’t be used to totally excuse adverse results, Walker revealed that, even in the heat of battle, he can detect that the opposition have more seasoned professionals in their ranks. He knows his fellow youngsters have plenty of talent, but he admits the team could desperately do with a few more older heads along with the likes of Ryan Stevenson and Jamie Hamill – the only outfield players over the age of 22 – to help them through when the going gets tough.
“Being out there on the pitch, you can tell the other teams have more experience than us,” he said. “Everyone in this team has ability, but we’re just lacking that bit of experience. We’ve only really got Hamill and Ryan, who’s injured now, so it’s only going to get harder.
“Ryan’s a massive player for us. He’s scored a few goals. When it gets tough, we do look to the likes of Ryan, Hamill and Danny Wilson [still only 21] to try and take things by the scruff of the neck and lift us, but I think the young boys need to start taking a bit of extra responsibility as well.”
Walker is still adamant Hearts can stay up, but he is aware that there is a sense of deflation among the Hearts support. While this season is proving to be a difficult one for everyone connected with the club, he believes it will stand him and his young colleagues in good stead for the future, rather than having the effect of hindering their development. “People don’t like getting beat now and the fans obviously hate losing, but hopefully in a few years it all pays off and we can have a good team and the club can make a bit of money,” he said.
While the statistics of the past two weeks make for grim reading, Walker feels Hearts were on the end of a misleading scoreline at Tannadice last weekend, when they matched a buoyant Dundee United side for periods of the match before being undone, once again, by costly defensive lapses.
“It’s hard being on the end of heavy defeats, but no-one’s really run over the top of us this season except Celtic in the Scottish Cup,” he said. “They were magnificent that day, it was the best I’ve seen them play, and then they go and get hammered 6-1 by Barcelona the other night, so it shows heavy beatings can happen to anyone. We’re competing well in most games, but if we can cut out individual errors and defend better as a team, we’ll start picking up more points.”
Amid the difficulties Hearts are enduring, Walker can at least console himself with the fact his own form has been good over the past month or so, even if he was perturbed by the booking he picked up, harshly, for diving at Tannadice last weekend. “I’ve been playing well and getting a few plaudits so hopefully I can keep that going,” he said. “The booking was frustrating. I thought it was a free kick for us.”