Kevin McHattie doesn’t mess around. Asked if Kilmarnock’s former Hearts employees intend to prove a point returning to Tynecastle on Saturday, his answer is emphatic: “Yes, definitely. The drive to prove them wrong and show that you can do a job is a motivational thing.”
Being told you aren’t needed hurts and McHattie is honest enough to acknowledge so. Just four weeks ago, he became the latest in a long list of players released by Hearts because they were surplus to requirements. Many have headed straight to Rugby Park and the comforting arm of a manager who knew their emotions only too well.
Gary Locke, himself cast aside as manager when Ann Budge took control in Gorgie 16 months ago, has brought several of his former charges to Ayrshire. McHattie, Scott Robinson, Dale Carrick, Jamie MacDonald, Mark Ridgers and Conrad Balatoni are all Locke signings, whilst Jamie Hamill was already in place.
They will all - with the exception of the injured Carrick - arrive back at Tynecastle this weekend fuelled by a sense of injustice. They lost 3-2 to Hearts in last week’s League Cup tie and are determined to go back to Edinburgh and earn a league win. If they also make a mockery of the decisions taken to let them leave, then it will merely bring extra satisfaction.
The writing was on the wall for McHattie early last month when Nigeria’s World Cup left-back, Juwon Oshaniwa, arrived at Tynecastle ready to take his position. “I pretty much knew then, yeah,” he said, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “I tried to focus on my own game and things I could do to improve. Juwon came in and did exceptionally well, so credit to him.”
Three weeks later, the 22-year-old held talks with head coach Robbie Neilson which brought confirmation that his long-term future lay elsewhere. “He told me basically I wasn’t going to play as much as I wanted. At my age, you want to play week in and week out,” recalled McHattie.
“I spoke to Robbie and he said: ‘If you want to, you’re free to leave if you find another club.’ I spoke to my agent and got a move to Kilmarnock. Knowing Gary Locke and a few of the players who were with me at Hearts helps. It made the decision to come here a wee bit easier.”
McHattie holds no grievance with Neilson or Hearts. He is quick to express gratitude and feels he owes a debt to the Edinburgh club for enhancing his development. He joined from Dunfermline’s youth academy as a 17-year-old in 2010 and went on to have a five-year career with some exhilarating highs and skull-crushing lows.
“Hearts brought me through as a youth and gave me my chance in the first team. I can’t thank them enough,” he continued. “They’re the ones who gave me that opportunity in the first place. I spoke to Robbie before I left and he said: ‘Anything you want, come and see me and I’ll try my best to help.’
“He was great with me. He even sent me a text to say congratulations when I scored on my debut for Kilmarnock. I’ll always have that relationship with the club and the people there. I’d hope to keep that going for years to come.
“To play against your old team is a big one and going back to Tynecastle is a big occasion. I’m used to walking out in a Hearts jersey, so it will be weird. I’m looking forward to it, though. I spent five years there and went through thick and thin with the club going into administration and everything. Then there was the high of winning the league last year. It’s going to be a great occasion for me and I can’t wait to walk out of that tunnel.
“I’m not the type of guy to get emotional but obviously I’ve got memories from my time at Hearts. I’ll think about the highs and lows. I’m playing against my friends so it will be good but it will be emotional at the same time. I haven’t grown up as a die-hard Hearts fan. Brad [McKay] left at the end of last season and then started this season playing at Tynecastle [for St Johnstone]. It’s slightly different for me.”
Kilmarnock’s fortunes have improved since McHattie’s arrival. That debut goal two minutes from time at Tannadice proved to be the winner - securing Locke his first three points of the campaign after a horrid start including 4-0 home defeats by both Dundee and Ross County. Kilmarnock won again the following week against St Johnstone but suffered a 2-1 loss against Hamilton last Saturday.
McHattie believes the improvement is down to hard work and attacking menace. “I came in to Kilmarnock for my first day on the Tuesday during the international break and the boys were in training all week,” he revealed. “Some clubs give their players time off during international breaks but we were in every day working on things and trying to get fitter. It’s showing in our play now.
“We’re looking confident and sharp and we look a threat going forward. We just need to tighten up defensively and we’ll be firing. I think we’re decent going forward. We’ve got big Josh Magennis up top, [Greg] Kiltie out wide and Higgy [Kallum Higginbotham]. They’re very direct players and I think we’ll cause Hearts problems on Saturday. Hopefully we can be stronger at the back. We’ll work on it at training and see what we can do.
“Everyone in the team is looking forward to it. They’re all speaking about how it’s always good to go and play at Tynecastle in front of a big crowd. That’s what you thrive on so we can’t wait to get there. I didn’t see Hearts’ game at the weekend but I heard the defence tightened up a bit again, so it should be a good game and a good test.”