CONRAD BALATONI is thriving as a bona fide top-flight footballer with Partick Thistle. He puts much of that down to his grounding at Hearts, the opposition for tomorrow night’s Premiership match at Firhill. Specifically, he credits Riccarton academy coach Darren Murray with developing him into a top-level centre-back.
The 22-year-old was a mainstay in Murray’s youth teams at under-17 and under-19 level until he was released by Hearts in January 2012. He instantly joined Thistle having impressed there during two previous loan spells. The Maryhill club won promotion last season and Balatoni has been an integral part of the impressive opening to their first top-flight campaign in nine years – four points from two league games leaves them third in the embryonic SPFL Premiership table.
Hearts’ visit offers Balatoni the chance to show just how much he has matured and perhaps force them to question the decision to free him. Ironically, were he still at Tynecastle, he would undoubtedly be heavily involved at first-team level given the threadbare squad. Yet the player has no regrets. He feels he is better prepared than ever to handle Scotland’s top strikers thanks to the nurturing skills of Murray.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Darren and if it wasn’t for him I probably wouldn’t be the player I am today,” Balatoni told the Evening News. “He started off as my under-17s coach. He coached me all through my youth years and in the reserves so I know him well. He’s changed so much since I first met him. I think he’d be the first to say he was a bit of a hothead. In the changing room, if things weren’t going his way, he was an angry man. He calmed down and realised what he needed to do to get the best out of players.
“I’ve seen him at his worst and I’ve seen him at his best. You don’t want to get on the wrong side of him, put it that way. Having said that, he’s a lovely guy and always has your best interests at heart and he always wants to improve you as a player. He pushes you on to do that. He’s a Hearts fan through and through and what’s going on at the club just now is probably killing him inside. He’ll do everything he can to help Hearts out of that situation by bringing through the best young talent in the country.”
In addition to his youth coaching duties, Murray now works with manager Gary Locke and his assistant, Billy Brown, at senior level. “A coach can only teach you things. It’s up to you to put them into practice,” continued Balatoni. “Most of what Darren taught me, I managed to take on board. It’s only when I went out on loan and played against experienced players that I realised what he was telling me was true. You do make mistakes, but you learn from them and you realise it’s the advice he gave you that you fall back on.
“It’s a credit to him that he’s brought all these young players through at Hearts – and good players they are as well. He’s taught them how to play football the right way and players enjoy playing under him. They don’t just go out and hoof the ball, he likes to play from the back. That suited me because I like to play football and luckily Partick Thistle like to knock the ball around, too, so I’ve fitted in nicely here.”
Balatoni still regards himself as a Hearts supporter despite severing ties with the club. He attended Sunday’s Edinburgh derby victory over Hibs and remains close friends with several former Riccarton team-mates who have made a successful transition to the first team. He isn’t bitter about being cast aside, more thankful for the opportunity Thistle granted him.
“I knew I wasn’t going to get another contract at Hearts. I just had a feeling,” he said. “Halfway through my second season on loan at Partick Thistle, I got a call saying I was getting released, so I was right. I’ve always felt at home at Thistle, they gave me my chance although I’m also grateful to Hearts for helping me develop from a young age until I left.
“I was very fortunate and I know how lucky I am. Some good players have left Hearts and not found another team. I knew Jackie McNamara liked me as a player and he always said he wanted to sign me if he ever became a manager. Luckily for me, he did and he stuck to his work. Hopefully I repaid him while he was here. I see lots of good players out of contract and struggling to get a team, so I am very lucky.
“I’m still really good friends with Dylan McGowan. He sorted me out with a couple of tickets for the derby on Sunday, but, when we cross that white line on Friday night, we won’t be mates. I still speak to him a lot and I know some of the younger ones like Jason Holt and Jamie Walker. It will be good to see them all again, plus Darren as well.”
Due to a goalless home draw with Dundee United and a stirring 3-1 victory at Ross County, confidence is high at Firhill ahead of Hearts’ arrival. The Edinburgh club began the campaign minus 15 points as a punishment for entering administration, but Balatoni has still encountered many people predicting relegation for Thistle come next May.
“It happens every season that the team coming up is expected to go straight back down,” he said. “We don’t care what people say. This year we’re second favourites to go down after Hearts, according to the bookies and journalists, but we don’t think like that. We feel we have a squad capable of playing in the Premiership.
“Our start has been good and that’s vital for us. We rode our luck a couple of times against Dundee United, but we were fantastic at Ross County. Everyone thought we were probably going to get beaten. We proved them wrong. Home form is going to be vital and Hearts are coming off the back of a fantastic result against Hibs at the weekend.
“I’ve been pretty happy with my performances in the first couple of games and I’m really enjoying it. That’s the main thing about football. If you enjoy it, you perform well. Playing Hearts is like any other game for me. I want to win any game I play in. Obviously it would be nice to beat them given my past history with them, but I’ll treat it like any other match.
“We had a couple of ex-team-mates playing for Dundee United in the first game of the season and you could see there were no old friendships on the pitch. You’re friends up until the first whistle and then again after the final whistle. That’s it. Hearts want to win and we want to win, so everything else goes on the backburner. You have a wee slagging match after the game depending on who takes the points.”