Having made the step up from Inverness Caledonian Thistle last summer, the increased demands at Tynecastle resulted in nerves, underwhelming form and a loss of confidence for the 23-year-old winger who endured a five-month period between late August and late January in which he started only one match – a 5-0 defeat away to Celtic.
“I’ve definitely needed time to get used to being at Hearts,” Mulraney said in a candid interview with the Evening News. “I played in big games for Inverness against the likes of Celtic and Rangers but the pressure is nowhere near what it is at Hearts. At Inverness, there’s probably only 4,000 people there, but here there’s close to 20,000 and the atmosphere is a lot louder and more intense. You can barely hear anything on the pitch so it took a bit of getting used to. At the start I was going on the pitch really, really nervous but now that’s gone. It was just a case of getting used to it.”
Upon becoming a peripheral player in the first half of the season, Mulraney had to assess where he was falling short and do something about it.
“I had a chat with the manager,” he said. “I had an idea of what he wanted from the way he spoke to the wide boys before games and during games but I wanted to get clarity so I got that from speaking to him. I went away and did some extra stuff to improve my chances of getting into his team. I really want to repay the gaffer. Even when I was going through that struggle earlier in the season, he still gave me chances. He threw me in against Celtic at the start of the season and then away to Celtic and as a substitute at St Mirren, for instance, but I wasn’t doing the business, so it was my fault.”
Since forcing his way back into the starting line-up for the 2-0 win at home to St Johnstone in late January, Mulraney has started ten of Hearts’ past 15 matches. The Northern Irishman’s contribution has been particularly eye-catching in his last three starts – against Aberdeen, Hibs and former club Inverness in last weekend’s Scottish Cup semi-final.
“I’m happy because I’ve been working hard towards getting back to the level I know I’m capable of and getting up to the standard required to play at this level,” he said. “I still feel like I’ve got another gear or two to go because I need to start scoring goals and cementing more assists.
“I just need to be a bit more ruthless.
“But in the past few weeks I feel like I’ve been getting into better positions for having a shot or creating chances. Against Hibs I had two or three shots and last week I had a couple of shots, which is more than I’d been getting before when I was probably staying out wide all the time. I’m getting into better positions now.
“I’ve been getting some positive feedback from the fans recently, and I appreciate that. I don’t really listen to the negative stuff, I just concentrate on the people that are supporting me and are behind me. But I certainly feel like the fans have been showing me a bit more love in the past few weeks and that makes a difference. It makes you feel a bit more relaxed and more comfortable knowing that people are behind you.
“I’m definitely a confidence player. Probably 95 per cent of attacking players are like that. Any winger will tell you if you’re confident, you’ll be flying but if you’re not, you have to work hard to snap out of that spell and get yourself back to being confident and trusting your ability.
“I knew I had it in me but it’s just been a case of trying to show it consistently. It was probably the case last year at Inverness as well. I’d have a good game then I’d drop off for a couple of games. Now I have a bit more of an understanding of how to be more consistent so that should help me in the long run.”
Although restored to the left wing in recent matches, Mulraney, who is at his most comfortable when attacking, has had to adapt to being a left-wing-back in previous games. “I don’t mind the wing-back role,” he said. “Personally, I don’t like defending but that role has made me a better defender and has made me better positionally. It’s made me more versatile so it’s making me a better player. By the end of the season I’ll be a better player than when I arrived here. Even earlier in the season when I was struggling, it made me a better player because I went off and worked on the things I needed to improve on, whereas before I hadn’t really had that situation so I never really felt like I had to do extra.”
Mulraney hopes to impress against Rangers today as he bids to bolster his chances of being involved in the Scottish Cup final against Celtic next month. “I was just saying to my girlfriend the other day it’s really important I finish the season strongly,” he said. “I want to finish strongly to make sure I’m in that team for the cup final. I know how quickly you can lose your place so I need to perform as well as I can to give me the best chance of being involved against Celtic.”