A RATIO of one goal in every two matches sees Jamie Walker enter the season’s business end as the Ladbrokes Premiership’s top-scoring Scotsman. He has 15 goals in all competitions but is far from finished there.
The Hearts winger intends to reach the 20 mark and prove conclusively that he is the outstanding Scottish player in the country.
International recognition is secondary for now after he was curiously overlooked for the latest Scotland squad. Walker is instead focusing on Hearts’ ten remaining league fixtures with the aim of scoring at least another five times.
Games like tomorrow’s trip to Pittodrie to face Aberdeen are the kind he thrives on, with BT Sport’s cameras broadcasting the match live. The big occasion appeals to him and he tends to deliver on the grandest stage more often than not. If he can complete the campaign with a tally of 20 goals or more, it would be a significant tonic to Hearts’ European aspirations. It would also mark him out as arguably Scotland’s most gifted native footballer.
“I’m loving it here. I’ve still got next year here on my contract,” he said in an exclusive Evening News interview. “It’s probably my first full season playing without being injured so I’m delighted with that. I’m playing well, scoring goals and looking forward to every game.
“I’m just delighted to be the top scorer from midfield. If I get five more goals I’d have 20 for the season, which isn’t a bad return from midfield. That’s my target just now and if I get more than that I’d be delighted.”
More than half of Walker’s goals have come in the last three months under new head coach Ian Cathro. The player feels he is progressing rapidly with the Dundonian’s influence.
“Since the gaffer came in, I’ve improved a lot,” he continued. “I’ve scored eight goals since he took over. He works with me every day to get me doing stuff off the ball and working on that side of my game. I’m enjoying working with him.”
Although only 23, Walker is regarded as a senior player inside the Riccarton dressing room. He is approaching the end of his fifth full season as a first-team regular and carries a fair degree of experience. He has captained the club on occasions and is happy to accept the responsibility of being an on-field leader.
After Cathro recruited nine non-Scottish players during January, Walker and others like Sam Nicholson and Jack Hamilton have been keen to emphasise what is expected of anyone who dons a maroon shirt at Tynecastle.
“I do feel more responsibility,” said the winger. “Over the course of the season, I’ve been the one the boys have looked to for a goal or to create something out of the ordinary. I’ve taken more pressure on my shoulders and I’m enjoying it. It’s something I thrive on. I’ve scored 15 goals this season so I just want to keep going. I think this has been my best season. I’ve scored a couple of goals against Rangers and I’ve scored against Celtic. You get judged on the big games.”
They don’t come much bigger than Aberdeen away. Particularly when the Dons are flying high in second place in the Premiership with an eight-point advantage over third-placed Rangers.
Hearts travel north in relative confidence after a comprehensive 4-0 home win against Hamilton last week. That ended a five-game run without a win for the Edinburgh club.
“We were playing Hamilton but it was still a massive win. Ross County weren’t in great form coming to Tynecastle in the previous game and they managed to turn us over. Last Saturday was a big result,” stressed Walker.
“It was tough before that because for the last few years we’ve won the majority of games. We hadn’t lost many on the bounce so it was hard to take. It’s part of being a footballer. You have to keep your head up, keep working hard and hope that the results turn.
“It was only Hamilton we played at the weekend but we need to go out and prove we can play against Aberdeen, Celtic and St Johnstone as well in the next three matches.
“These are the ones you look forward to, the ones you want to play in. Sometimes they’re not all football matches. You saw that against Hibs recently. Games like that can be a battle and you need to win the battle first, which isn’t my strong point. You need to do it in matches like that, though.”
If a Europa League qualifying place is to become reality for the second successive year, finishing in the Premiership’s top three is imperative. Hearts came third behind Celtic and Aberdeen last year, but are presently fourth and six points behind Rangers ahead of this weekend’s fixtures.
Walker knows firmly what is required over the next three games against Aberdeen, Celtic and St Johnstone.
“When you play for Hearts, there are big expectations. We finished third last year so the fans are expecting that again,” he said. “Football doesn’t work like that. Look at Leicester. They won the English Premier League last year and now they’re struggling massively in that division. They’ve also qualified for the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
“If there’s any chance of us catching Rangers for third spot, we need to pick up points in the next three games. That’ll be tough but we’re going up to Aberdeen looking to win.”
Most people would accept that second place looks beyond Hearts now, but no-one at Riccarton is of a mind to concede anything at this point. If we go on a wee run we might be able to get second but, as it stands, we’re fourth in the league and we’re looking at the place above us. That’s the aim for us and we’ll give 100 per cent to get there.”