IT seems appropriate that, as Danny Grainger returns to Tynecastle for the first time tomorrow, his successor there is in such imperious form.
Kevin McHattie waited patiently for three years to become Hearts’ established left-back and is maturing rapidly in the role this season.
The 20-year-old became first-choice following Grainger’s exit in May but looks like he has been there for considerably longer. In his mind at least, he’s been there for some time. Upon joining Hearts as a 17-year-old from Dunfermline in 2010, McHattie targeted the first-team left-back slot as his primary aim. Achieving it brings plenty satisfaction.
Jose Goncalves, Lee Wallace, Grainger and even Danny Wilson at one point were all ahead of him in the queue but McHattie has taken promotion in his stride and proved himself as a steady and assured presence on the left side of defence.
“Since I came to Hearts that was my target. Right from day one that’s what I wanted,” he said in an exclusive Evening News interview. “There were times when I wasn’t sure if I was going to get there but I’ve done well to get to this point. When I signed for Hearts there were 64 players so it was a bit dazzling to see that. What has happened to the club recently has benefited me as a youngster trying to get into the team. I had to keep battling on and proving myself.”
The grit and determination has stood him in good stead and will be vital tomorrow in what is already a relegation six-pointer just two months into the season. St Mirren haven’t won at Tynecastle since Boxing Day 2007 and have yet to record even a single victory in any competition this season. However, they still hold a nine-point advantage over Hearts at the foot of the Scottish Premiership.
“This is a must-win for us to put pressure on them,” stressed McHattie. “That’s what we need to do. There are teams above them that we need to put pressure on as well. It’s definitely our biggest game, it’s a six-pointer for us because we want to close the gap on them. It’s just massive.
“Every game is a cup final and every game is important with the position we’re in. We’ve done well to get to where we are but we want it to continue and we want to pressurise the teams above us. St Mirren had a game on Monday and got a reasonable [1-1] result against Aberdeen, so their confidence will be a wee bit higher than it usually is. We’ll be wanting to take them back down to earth.”
Despite their 15-point deduction for entering administration and a range of financial problems surrounding the club, confidence is hardly at rock bottom amongst the Hearts players. In that sense, inexperience is a blessing due to their lack of fear. They have recovered eight points of the 15 to date but tomorrow will perhaps, because of St Mirren’s poor start and the importance of the result, be their most acute test yet in the fight against relegation.
“I do feel pressure a wee bit. You just need to keep your head in it and perform as well as you can,” said McHattie. “You’ve just got to relax. I like to chill, play a bit of FIFA and keep myself to myself. All the boys play one another at FIFA but we’ve not really decided who is the best since the new one came out. Maybe Brad [McKay]. He’s amazing.”
Camaraderie is fostered through X-Box Live these days rather than the traditional game of snooker or darts. Gary Locke, the Hearts manager, has played his own part in fostering the positivity which is helping McHattie and his team-mates recover ground in the league.
“Confidence is high around our camp,” continued the defender. “The gaffer isn’t going to let us feel sorry for ourselves after a disappointing result. We just move on to the next game and focus on that. The gaffer doesn’t really like going into the opposition team too much, he just focuses on how we prepare.
“We play with confidence and we don’t really fear anything. That’s a positive to come from being so young. We’ve all played together for years and it’s good to see so many players coming into the squad from the academy. Since day one this season, the gaffer told us we have to get to zero points as quick as we can and then build from there. We know we can do it, it’s just going to take time.
“Everyone here is confident we can stay up. It [the threat of relegation] does pray on your mind a wee bit. We just need to keep eating away at the points deficit and hopefully we’ll get there. All we can really do is chip away at it. If we can’t get a win, we’re happy with a draw. Every point is massive for us.”
Another healthy crowd will pour through the Tynecastle turnstiles tomorrow afternoon in anticipation of their team’s biggest game. Hearing and seeing their backing has helped settle the nerves of the Riccarton academy graduates upon whose shoulders Hearts’ fate rests this season.
“The fans have been terrific at every home game and, as a young player, you enjoy taking the pressure of playing in front of big crowds,” said McHattie. “We’re just hoping for the same again against St Mirren to help make sure we take full points.”