A Scotland Under-21 call-up is the latest peak on Billy King’s recent progress chart. For most of last season, he made little impact at Hearts.
Now he is flying high, scoring goals for a club top of the league and earning international recognition. That chart is now threatening to spike off the scale.
He may look barely eligible for under-12 football but King was called up by Scotland Under-21 coach Billy Stark following two goals in Hearts’ 4-1 win over Falkirk. It was certainly an unexpected development for the player. In conversation with the Evening News after Saturday’s 4-1 victory, he opined an under-21 place was “probably a step too far right now”.
That illustrates an issue several coaches have noted with King: he actually doesn’t realise how good a player he is.
His potential is now clear after an explosive start to the new campaign in which he has scored three goals in five games. He joins Hearts colleagues Jack Hamilton, Jordan McGhee and Sam Nicholson in the Scotland squad for upcoming European Under-21 Championship qualifiers in Slovakia and Luxembourg.
King was shocked when his mobile phone rang with Robbie Neilson’s name on the screen on Sunday evening. The Hearts head coach’s impromptu call was to deliver news which the winger’s performances thoroughly merit.
“We were out for a Chinese for my wee brother’s birthday on Sunday and Robbie phoned me to say I’d been called up,” said King, who previously represented Scotland at under-19 and under-16 level.
“I was delighted to hear that, obviously. It was great news to be called up but it was all last-minute stuff. I left early on Monday morning to get through to the team hotel and it was a bit frantic trying to get stuff ready, but it’s great just being called into the squad.
“When the original squad was announced there were lots of good players in my position so I was like, ‘fair enough’. I thought maybe a few months down the line I could get a call-up but it’s come sooner than I expected. It feels really good.”
Anyone who saw King’s tentative displays as a substitute for Hearts last year will agree he looks a transformed player now. The final few games of last season offered a hint of his potential as he claimed three goals in eight appearances. The confidence built up then has been carried quite seamlessly into the current campaign.
“I said as soon as I came back from my holidays that I would aim to start the first game of the season, which I did,” continued King. “I took my chance and I’ve just gone on from there. Hopefully I can keep playing well and we can keep winning games.
“I think the confidence is just down to a good run in the team. I’m playing with good players, we’re creating a lot of chances and playing the football that players like me enjoy. I’d say my form is mostly down to that. Also, we’re winning most games and that breeds confidence in itself.
“I always knew I was capable of starting games and playing really well. It was just a matter of getting my chance. Last season, I came off the bench in most games and it was difficult. I was coming on in games when we were losing and my confidence wasn’t there. That’s the main difference for me, it’s just confidence.
“We were getting beaten in most games last season and confidence was low within the whole squad. This season, we’ve started really well. We’re playing really nice football and it’s just a matter of keeping it going.
“Now, I’m playing with confidence and you can see that in my performances. I got two goals on Saturday. Last season, I never had any confidence. That’s the change, I think.”
King’s admirable self-effacing attitude resurfaces when he is asked about his goal contribution of late, which he will try to recreate with Scotland if given game time over the next week. “I wouldn’t say I’m normally a goalscoring winger,” he said. “I usually create chances rather than score them but I’m delighted to get myself on the scoresheet.
“Maybe that’s something I need to incorporate in my game a bit more, getting goals. I was really happy to score two at the weekend.”
His contributions, both scoring and assisting, are a major factor in Hearts’ position at the top of the SPFL Championship. “I never expected us to be sitting top of the table with four wins from the first four games. Now we head into an international break and it’s brilliant from our point of view,” said the 20-year-old.
“We can’t look back at it and say ‘we’ve done really well’. We need to keep going and we need to keep winning. One slip up is all it takes for Rangers or Hibs to catch up with us. We need to keep our feet on the ground. We need to keep our concentration on winning games. We need to win every game, it’s not acceptable to draw any games. We’re looking for three points every week. First and foremost, Hearts are concentrating on winning this league.
“We’ve got off to a great start and it’s a matter of keeping it going when we get back.
“The grounds we’re going to this season are difficult games. The teams we are up against will sit in and make it difficult for us to play our football. It will be a different type of game.
“It’s a case of us trying to break these teams down, trying to get goals and keeping it tight at the back.”