Honestly and without second thought, Kevin McHattie credits left-back rival Adam Eckersley for his return to the Hearts team.
The 21-year-old admits the arrival of the Englishman brought exactly what he needed – competition.
McHattie enjoyed first-pick status last year, but found himself demoted to substitute in recent weeks. Eckersley, a free agent who arrived at Tynecastle in August with Manchester United on his CV, started seven consecutive games in the left-back role.
Then, at Falkirk on Saturday, McHattie found himself reinstated. Eckersley was not risked due to a hip injury and the young Scot took his chance in determined fashion, scoring a goal in a vital 2-1 win as Hearts increased their lead over Rangers at the top of the Scottish Championship to six points.
“Adam’s come in and it’s what I needed – competition,” said McHattie. “Mistakes will be punished and the gaffer needs to switch things about. I totally respect that. It means that every day you need to go out to training thinking, ‘I need to work my hardest here to play on Saturday’. I think everyone’s attitude is like that now. It’s fantastic.
“I do welcome the challenge. Adam’s a great guy and we get along well. I think it’s just whoever trains well throughout the week is going to play, which is what I want. It means you’ve got to train and perform every day, get better every day, cut out the mistakes every day.
“It’s just repetition – training well, eating well, everything. I think the competition has made me better. I’ve got to be on my game and it’s great for me to have that.”
He could not have timed the return any better. Hearts enter two monumental clashes with Rangers and Celtic over the next two weekends in the league and Scottish Cup respectively. McHattie has made himself a hard man to drop, regardless of Eckersley’s fitness.
He scored Hearts’ opening goal in the victory at Falkirk and is now firmly in the frame to face both Glasgow clubs.
“I’m looking forward to those games,” continued McHattie. “I don’t know what Adam’s situation is. Hopefully he’ll be back soon and the competition will be there again.
“It’s natural to get into the team and think, ‘this is my chance and I’ve got to take it’. Every player does that. It’s just how you react. Hopefully I’ve done okay.
“Getting the goal is a bonus, but I think the team performance is more important. We did very well in the first half, then Falkirk came out the traps after half-time and caused us a few problems. We defended well and got the three points.
“I found out I was playing on the Friday morning. I’d played with the under-20s during the week up at Ross County and did well. I got into the team because Adam’s out and I hope he’s back soon. It’s good for my confidence. I’m feeling it again and I’m delighted.”
Scoring against an old friend and team-mate was an unexpected dividend and McHattie was keen to make the most of his strike past the Falkirk goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald. “I’m not put in the team to score, but when I do I’ll take it. To be fair, I thought I did well to put it past Jamma. He had no chance,” he laughed.
“I just swivelled and Jamma’s thinking I’m going to hit it across the goal, but I’ve hit it past him at the front post. We’re flying just now and confidence is high. That’s all down to the gaffer. Morale is brilliant. We just have to keep going.”
Reluctantly, McHattie concedes that not having to fight for his place last term led to a slight drop in standards. “A wee bit,” he continued.
“The gaffer back then [Gary Locke] had his hands tied and couldn’t bring in any players. That was hard for him. I think last season has built us up to this season.
“The experience of last season has been great for some of us younger ones and it’s carried on to this year.”
Hearts’ imperious start to life in Scottish football’s second tier makes it even more frustrating for those not involved.
“It’s hard to sit out,” explained McHattie. “It’s down to the gaffer. He chooses a team to go and win the game and I respect that in every manner. The team are all together and the passion is fantastic.
“The boys are willing to go and stick their heads on things and get hurt, which is what the game is about.
“Competition is a key thing in a squad. When you have a good number of players then you can chop and change things. We’ve got wee Holty [Jason Holt] sitting on the bench at the moment. Last season, he was playing basically every week.
“We’re feeling confident about Saturday. Rangers drew against Alloa on Saturday and we’re going in a few points ahead of them in the league. It’s a game everyone is looking forward to.”
None more so than the reinstated left-back, of course.