Adored by supporters, coaches and team-mates, the little man from Barrhead has carved out a place in people’s hearts with his own unique brand of football sorcery. Assists are his speciality but the mere sight of him gliding almost effortlessly across the Tynecastle Park turf is enough to excite any Jambo this season.
McKay is a modest type who hasn’t always enjoyed this level of adulation. At Rangers, he showed plenty potential and was popular without being a hugely emblematic figure. Subsequent spells at Nottingham Forest, Swansea City and Fleetwood Town were frustrating, often spent trying to prove his worth.
He quickly clicked into place after arriving at Tynecastle last September. Playing wide right, wide left or attacking from midfield, Hearts manager Robbie Neilson allows McKay licence to roam and use his intelligence to prise open opposition defences. Consequently, he is one of the most difficult men to mark in Scotland.
He is also one of the most cherished individuals, critical to Hearts’ hopes of lifting this season’s Scottish Cup. Hopes of earning group-stage points in Europe next term will rest heavily on his shoulders. The new-found popularity in Edinburgh takes some getting used to.
“It’s probably different to what I’m used to – they actually like me,” laughed McKay. “You play football and you want to make the fans enjoy coming to the games. Hopefully I do that with the way I play. It’s up to us to keep winning games and sending people home happy.
“It’s hard if you’re in and out of the team, or you make one mistake and the fans are on you. If you are making mistakes in the right areas because you are trying things, the Hearts supporters get right behind you.”
There was an uphill battle to be fought for supporters’ approval in England and Wales. Some of McKay’s experiences were awkward. “You could be in and out of the team so that’s difficult,” he explained.
“You go to any place and fans have got their favourites. It’s hard if you’re playing instead of one of those favourites. All of a sudden you aren’t good enough and all this sort of stuff.
“Thankfully, I’ve been able to get the Hearts fans onside with my performances this year. You want a run of games and continuity. At the start, I probably wasn’t getting the same number of assists as I was probably expecting.
“Robbie just kept playing me. He knew what I could bring to the team. As soon as that clicked it was different. More chances have been created the more me and the boys have got used to playing with each other.”
McKay, 27, has the second-most Premiership assists so far this season with ten, two behind Rangers captain James Tavernier. He can't touch the likes of Skacel for goals but has taken the threaded through pass to new heights of expertise.
His instant chest control and weighted delivery fed Ellis Simms for a blistering opening goal in the Scottish Cup semi-final victory against Hibs. The same combination brought Simms a late winner against Dundee United last week. There are multiple other examples of McKay’s artistry when it comes to sliding balls in behind opponents.
“It’s up to me to get into those positions but it’s up to the other boys to find me as well,” he said. “Thankfully, they have been able to do that this year. They were more getting used to me at the start but now they know I’m going to be in that position. They can give me the ball and I can handle it. I’ll also be able to put chances on a plate for strikers.”
Ross County will attempt to stifle his constant threat at Tynecastle tomorrow. Three more league games remain thereafter, then it’s the Scottish Cup final, then it’s McKay’s first sojourn into European competition.
“That definitely appeals,” he said. “We knew if we finished high up in the table then we would have a good chance of playing in Europe. That was probably one of the main goals. Thankfully we’ve got that done so we can look forward to coming back in the summer. Europe will be a new experience for me and it’s something I’m looking forward to.
“When I came in, one of the reasons for signing was that the club wanted to be competing up the top end of the table. You want to be trying to win cups and we have a chance to do that. We will go into the final with full confidence but, at the same time, we still have four league games left.
“The boys need to make sure they are in that starting team for the final. Winning games breeds confidence so we just need to keep building on it. You don’t want to go into the final on the back of defeats.”
It would be fair to say his decision to join Hearts has been fully justified. He signed a new three-year contract earlier this month to affirm his commitment. “It’s been brilliant. I always said my next step was an important one and it was about settling.
“I’ve done that here and that’s why I signed a new deal as well. I’m settled and enjoying my football, which I probably hadn’t done for a wee while. When you enjoy your football, that’s half the battle. You can see that on the pitch.”