Big interview: Jamie Walker reveals why he left Hearts for Wigan
As his former Hearts team-mates engage in battle at Easter Road on Friday, Jamie Walker will be preparing to face Scunthorpe United.
Ask him if there is even a small part of him wishing he was in Leith for the night and he rejects the notion unequivocally.
The 24-year-old insists his time was up at Hearts and that he needed the fresh start brought by January’s £300,000 transfer to Wigan Athletic. England’s League One can be far removed from Premier League exoticism but Walker and Wigan plan promotion to the Championship come May.
The money from his sale helped Hearts manager Craig Levein fund loan deals for Scotland international forward Steven Naismith, Manchester United full-back Demetri Mitchell and Angolan midfielder Joaquim Adao. Walker wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“I could have waited until the summer and let my contract run out. Then I might have had a few other offers as a free agent. I was adamant that Hearts got some money,” he said, speaking exclusively to the Evening News.
“They brought me up through the youths and did a lot for me through my injuries. They kept playing me and I think it’s good they got a bit of money.”
The club would still have preferred him to stay. Levein left a proposed new contract on the table until the very moment Walker left. The player was certainly tempted after 14 years in a maroon shirt. It was solely his decision to go and he firmly believes it was the correct one – despite criticism for swapping Scotland’s top tier for England’s third.
“I had a few offers from teams near the bottom of the English Championship but I wanted to come here. Wigan were flying high at the top of the league and hopefully next season we’ll be playing in the Championship.
“I spoke to Craig near the end of December. He said if I wanted to stay at Hearts then the contract offer was still there. I hadn’t played my best football for five or six months before that and I think I needed a fresh challenge. He said the offer would always be there if I wanted to stay.
“I was open and honest with him and told him I wanted to leave, so it went from there. It was hard to go. I was there for a long time, I’d played a lot of games and it was at the back of my mind to just sign the new contract and stay. But I knew I wasn’t playing great so I think it was the right time to move.
“I hold no grudges against the club. I appreciate everything they did for me over the years. They gave me the chance to be a professional footballer, which is what every kid wants.”
Carping comments as he headed to Greater Manchester were diluted by a wave of goodwill from those who really mattered.
“When I first started playing in the first team, it was all new and the criticism was quite hard to take. As you get older and play more games, you just take it on the chin,” said Walker. “I got a lot of positive messages as well when I left Hearts. I got a nice message from Ann Budge and one from Craig. People always have their opinions but you just have to put it to the side.”
He holds Levein in high regard for his support last summer. Rangers’ pursuit of Walker became akin to a public soap opera with the winger stuck silently in the middle. Levein knew it was in Hearts’ interests to keep him playing despite the loss of form.
“We had a great relationship. Everything that went on in the summer with Rangers was put to one side,” explained Walker. “He selected me most weeks and was always saying positive things about me in the press. For my family and my career, I just felt it was time to move on. Craig accepted that and gave me his best wishes.
“It was hard at the time. It was the first time in my career I really went through that. I’m not using it as an excuse for my form. It was up to me to get my head down. I had a few glimpses of the form I showed last season but I probably outstayed my welcome. I was there a bit long and I needed a fresh start.”
The change means he is no longer an automatic first choice when fit. That status must be earned all over again.
“It’s quite a bit different down here. We train a lot,” said Walker. “I had the knee injury I got in the Edinburgh derby at first but the gaffer [Paul Cook] has been brilliant with me. He said he didn’t want to chuck me in when I wasn’t fit because first impressions are massive.
“He gave me a lot of time to recover, get back to fitness at my own pace and weaned me into the team. I’ve been doing a lot of extra running and gym sessions and I’m feeling as good as ever.
“The gaffer knows I can play in any of the attacking midfield positions so I need to work hard and get into the side. You need to be patient. When I was up the road, if the team was playing well and somebody just came in and took my place then I wouldn’t be happy. It’s the same here. The team were top of the league when I came in so I had to wait for a chance. I set up the winning goal on my first start and I maybe could have had a couple myself. I’m getting sharper every week.”
“I wanted to come here, bed in for six months in League One, maybe score a few goals and hopefully find myself playing in the Championship next year.”
It is a goal he will pursue until the season’s last kick. Back in Edinburgh, his old club’s campaign may well rest on the outcome of Friday night’s derby with Hibs. Walker played last time Hearts won at Easter Road, which was four years ago.
“That’s not great. Hibs have had the better of the derbies but Hearts beat them last time so hopefully they can use that to their advantage and get a good result. It’s not nice when you lose a derby. There’s a backlash for a couple of weeks afterwards and it’s hard. The fans aren’t happy. However, if Hearts go down there on Friday it can kick them on for the rest of the season.
“I’ll watch the game and I hope the boys can win. I’m a Hearts fan myself and I want them to do well. When Saturday comes, I’ll be concentrating on the Scunthorpe game.”
Hibs away or Scunthorpe at home? Jamie Walker is content with his choice. He is a young man with a long-term plan to make his way up in the cut-throat world of English football. His heart is in the right place to do so.