Previously untapped mental toughness has helped Kevin McHattie emerge stronger after knee ligament damage.
He is now fully fit and eager to re-establish himself as Hearts’ first-choice left-back when Adam Eckersley leaves. The knee even stood up to a crunching Christian Nade challenge at Stark’s Park, which convinced McHattie it was fully healed.
The defender’s first senior appearance in four months came away at Raith Rovers last month and he was sent spinning on the turf by a reckless tackle which earned Nade a red card midway through the second half. Initially, McHattie feared his medial ligament may have been damaged again. The relief when he stood up won’t be forgotten quickly.
Having come through an arduous winter, including time stuck at home on crutches and unable to train, the 21-year-old is back playing. He wants to show head coach Robbie Neilson he should be first-choice next season, with Eckersley’s contract not being renewed. The will and strength to do so was built up during his time on the sidelines.
“I think the first couple of weeks were the hardest when I had the brace on. I was only in here once a week because I couldn’t do anything,” he recalled.
“It was hard because I was just sitting at home by myself because my girlfriend was at work. It was tough. You’ve just got to battle through it. I watched a bit of TV, I would get some pals round and play a bit of PS4, some Fifa and Call of Duty. It was hard but it has been worth it looking back on the season. I would do it again over and over.
“Injuries are a part of football and you just need to deal with it and have mental strength to come through it. I’m surprised at what I have come through but it’s great, I am happy to be back. My knee feels stronger. I maybe get a wee twitch now and then, but it’s 100 per cent.
“Mentally, I feel strong as well. I think the tackle with Nade at Raith was the one that kind of got me through the barrier. I actually thought I had possibly done my knee again, but it was fine, I was alright. It was a good one to come through and I am happy now. I’ll fly into tackles no bother now.”
Naturally, McHattie felt slightly detached from the Hearts squad during his four-month absence. An over-zealous tackle by Rangers’ Kenny Miller at Tynecastle last November effectively ruined the young full-back’s season. That left him on the outside looking in as his colleagues proceeded to run away with the Scottish Championship title.
“Maybe when I did my knee for the second time I felt that way, that was probably the lowest point of the season,” he admitted. “That was hard but I have good family and friends. My girlfriend and Brad [McKay] and Callum [Paterson] stood by me. So it was hard but it has been worth it, definitely.”
McHattie is now itching to play just as the campaign is coming to an end for Hearts.
“As the season has gone on, because of injuries, it has been difficult for me to get through it. The physios, my family and friends and even my team-mates have helped me get through it. Big Brad and Callum have been by my side. I would obviously like it to continue because it has been a magnificent season for Hearts but it will come to an end.”
What he will endeavour to do this afternoon against Cowdenbeath and next week against Rangers – if selected – is to prove his worth to the Hearts management team. “I am looking to go in and impress and see what I can do, and then come back flying for pre-season,” he said.
By then, Eckersley will have gone. The Englishman was a key player in Hearts’ successful promotion quest this year but will not be granted a contract extension by the Edinburgh club.
“He’s been massive,” admitted McHattie. “Defensively he has been magnificent. Since he walked into the dressing room he has been fantastic with all the boys and that’s what you want from all the new boys when they come in. He’s been a real asset to the club.”
“There is so much I can learn from his game that I can take into mine. He’s been very consistent and I wish him all the best.
“I was shocked, to be honest, when I heard he was going, but that’s football. I have seen strange things happen so I wish him all the best and hopefully he gets a club sorted soon.
“I haven’t spoken to the gaffer yet about my situation. I’ll do that before we go away or during pre-season. It’s great for me that he has confidence in me. I have kind of been number two left-back this season because of injuries and Adam’s consistency. Hopefully I can hit the ground next season and then see where I am.”