THERE was a time as recently as two years ago when Jamie MacDonald wondered if he would ever get the chance to prove his worth between the sticks for Hearts.
However, persistence has paid off for the Hearts goalkeeper and no-one could be happier for MacDonald than Steve Banks, a man who once kept him out of the Tynecastle first team.
Banks, now goalkeeping coach at Dundee United, saw his old team-mate take the knocks as he played understudy to Craig Gordon and himself, and then, more recently, Janos Balogh and Marian Kello.
Far from giving up though, MacDonald simply gritted his teeth and resolved to try even harder, even going out on loan to Queen of the South for some 18 months in a bid to get first-team football under his belt.
Eventually he became the club’s first-choice keeper under Jim Jefferies after Kello was frozen out at the tail end of the 2010/11 season. Since then, under Paulo Sergio and now John McGlynn, the 26-year-old MacDonald has established himself as the club’s undisputed No. 1.
“I am really pleased for him because he had to be very patient,” said Banks. “He spent a lot of time being two or three to myself, Craig, Janos or Marian but he kept pushing and I think he deserves to be where he is right now.
“Any time that the manager, whoever that might have been at the time, brought him in he would always perform really well. He was a steady Eddie and never let anyone down. I think he was really unfortunate not to have been given his chance earlier.
“It was always only a matter of time before he made the breakthrough and that’s all credit to him. A lot of people might have given up because of the number of knocks he took but it says a lot about him that he stayed and fought for what he wanted.”
The two keepers became good friends during their mutual time at Tynecastle and caught up with one another before Hearts’ 3-1 defeat to United at Tannadice last weekend.
Banks continued: “We used to go out fairly regularly for a drink or a bite to eat, but Jamie has got a six-month old baby so we’ve not had the chance for a little while. We still talk on the phone or text one another so it was good to see him at Tannadice. We shook hands and said ‘hello’ before the game but obviously because of the result we didn’t see each other after the game.
“Dundee United have been on the wrong end of a few results from Hearts in recent times and I felt we maybe owed them one so it was a good outcome for us.”
During his battle to become the Hearts first choice keeper, MacDonald was sent out on loan to Queen of the South and he made a lasting impression on the Palmerston Park outfit by helping them reach the Scottish Cup final for the first time in their 89-year history.
The Doonhamers lost to Rangers in the 2008 Hampden showpiece but, since coming back to Tynecastle, he has gone on to lift that trophy with the Jambos, as well as gaining European experience against English Premier League giants Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool – not to mention becoming a father.
Banks believes that going out on loan was one of the best things he could have done for his career, explaining: “I think he needed to go out on loan because although everyone knew that he was a good keeper, he needed to show that he could do it on a regular basis.
“He certainly proved that at Queen of the South. He helped get them to the Cup final and when he went back to Hearts he fought really hard for his place in the team – and eventually got it.
“He may have had opportunities to go elsewhere during the time that he was in and out of the team, but Jamie is a total Jambo at heart. He’s been at the club since he was just a kid and I think that now he is doing what he always wanted. That’s great to see.”
Banks revealed that the goalkeepers at Tannadice are a close-knit unit, just as they were at Tynecastle when he worked alongside MacDonald and Gordon.
While Banks can be found on the bench most weeks, the remainder of his goalkeeping pool on Tayside includes first-choice Radoslaw Cierzniak and youngsters Joe McGovern and Philip Anderson, while Marc McCallum – who has been involved with Scotland Under-21s – is currently on loan at Berwick Rangers.
He added: “I am fortunate that the two clubs I have been at in Scotland have had a close-knit unit when it comes to the goalkeepers. At both Hearts and Dundee United we have all worked hard, pushed each other on and encouraged one another.
“The game has changed so much since I started playing football, things like plyometrics have been introduced on the fitness side of things and there is so much analysis involved now, too. Jim Stewart was the goalkeeping coach when I first went to Hearts and he brought in video analysis just for keepers. We would all sit down and watch goals or incidents that had happened in the previous game and discuss it.
“We would never pick on anyone, it was all just an exercise in making people better. Obviously you might disagree with one another at points, but if that was the case you all discussed it and what you could do to make yourself better next time.
“It is something that I took to United with me because it worked really well at Hearts and everyone is looking for that one thing that will give them a little edge.”