Barrie McKay inspired by Hearts' total football approach as he reveals what drew him to Tynecastle
Footballers often become frustrated when managers prioritise either style or substance. At Hearts this season, both are considered equally important.
The Edinburgh club are unbeaten after nine rounds of cinch Premiership fixtures playing an entertaining and attractive brand of the game. The league table speaks for itself and the positivity is seemingly unshakeable at Riccarton right now.
Dundee visit Tynecastle Park tomorrow as the latest team to test Hearts’ resolve. With the likes of Leigh Griffiths, Charlie Adam, Jordan McGhee and Paul McGowan, they will be no sacrificial lambs despite only winning their first league game of the season last week against Aberdeen.
Nonetheless, the hosts’ style and panache combined with a genuine cutting edge has proven insurmountable to every other top-flight team so far. It is a central reason players like Barrie McKay signed for the club and why they are now flourishing under manager Robbie Neilson.
McKay enjoyed Mark Warburton’s flowing football gameplan at Rangers between 2015 and 2017. In conversation with the Evening News, he explained the similarities with Hearts’ current approach having found himself rejuvenated back in Scotland.
“It’s been enjoyable getting back out there and helping the team as well. Everything is always better when you’re winning,” he said. “It’s helped me settle into the squad. We know we have a good squad and we can achieve things this year.
“I only knew a certain number of players when I came in but I’ve been pretty impressed with the guys I didn’t know. The style of play has really impressed me – the way we press and pass the ball. It really suits the players we have.
“I played under Warburton, it was total football. I don’t think we’re really that far off that with the way the manager wants us to play here. We want to keep the ball and we have players in attack who can hurt teams.
“At the other end, Craig [Gordon] is an unbelievable keeper who makes big saves at big moments, plus there are three good centre-backs who help him keep the ball out of the net.”
The decision to join Hearts followed a summer when McKay considered his future for a long time having left Swansea City. “It was important for me to go somewhere that would help get the best out of me. I looked at Hearts and their playing style and that appealed to me,” he added.
“I’m not the biggest so putting the ball up in the air isn’t going to be my game. If you get the ball down I can hurt people. If results aren’t going your way, there will always be questions about the style of play, the manager, players or whatever. If you’re winning then nothing gets said.
“Thankfully, we have been winning plenty games and haven’t lost yet in the league. We’ve done it with an attacking style. There are a lot of attacking players in the squad which helps implement that approach. You need to bring in players who fit that style.”
Fans have responded to the winger who has licence to roam across the front in Hearts’ 3-4-3 formation. “It was important for me coming here that I knew I was wanted,” he continued.
“I don’t go on social media as much as I used to. I see a lot of nice comments, though. It’s nice to be back influencing games. That’s what I can do and what I was brought here to do.
“I’ve kind of got a free role. If I’m on the right with Michael Smith, he gets up and down, he talks to you and gives you the ball. As a player in my position, you need the ball. That’s how you cause damage. You can make runs in behind but then you need the ball.
“That’s what we have in the team, that trust. Every player you pass to, you trust they can keep it. I also feel as fit as I ever have. The way we train is tough but it’s helped me get there. I’ve played a lot of minutes and I feel good in the games. I’m getting stronger. The only way you get match-sharp is by playing games.”
An indication of McKay’s value to Hearts lies in the fact he has started every match since debuting as a substitute against Hibs on September 12. It would be a major shock if he was not on the field at kick-off against Dundee.
The fixture is the first of three difficult assignments for Neilson’s side, who go to St Johnstone next Wednesday and then Aberdeen three days later. The flair football will travel with them but, crucially, there remains a desire to win ugly if necessary.
“It’s still early. We want to win every game and do it in our style of play,” said McKay. “Some teams won’t let you show that style, you need to earn the right to play. I think we can hurt a lot of teams in this league.
“Even last weekend. I thought Rangers were really good but our shape was very good and we caused them problems, especially in the second half.
“I think Tynecastle is a brilliant stadium with brilliant fans to have on your side. You need them there and the players enjoy making them happy. That connection is important.
“We have the players for both sides of the game. None of the guys at the back want to concede goals and that gives the forward players that freedom to go and attack. You will have off-days when things don’t come off but it’s important you can still win.”