Conor Washington reveals why he volunteered to leave Hearts for Charlton Athletic
Everything always comes out in the wash. Leaving Hearts has prompted a candid assessment of the last 12 months from Conor Washington, who volunteered to move on after relegation amid fears for his international career with Northern Ireland.
The striker’s transfer to Charlton Athletic earned the Edinburgh club an undisclosed fee just a year after he arrived as a marquee signing. Injuries and a collective malaise within the team restricted him to four goals in 22 Hearts appearances.
Washington spoke exclusively to the Evening News about why he put his hand up offering to leave when Robbie Neilson returned as manager. “I spoke to you in the summer and we all knew we had a big squad. It was always going to be a struggle to keep all the high-earning internationalists,” he explained after signing a two-year contract at The Valley last week.
“Boycie [Liam Boyce] was settled on a long-term deal and Naisy [Steven Naismith] was similar. Knowing I only had a year left on my contract, and given my age, I spoke to the manager and made it known that if there needed to be people leaving then I was happy to be one of them.
“I think most managers would struggle to get me, Jamie Walker, Naisy and Boycie all in the one team. I can’t speak highly enough of Robbie. He was great with me and I’ve heard people who worked with him in England say the same. Hearts are in very good hands.
“I said to him: ‘I’m looking to move and you’re looking to move me on. If that doesn’t happen, I’ll give you 110 per cent in every single training session and every single game.’
“They could have excluded me from everything and asked me not to come in but I was still training with Hearts until the move went through. I’ll always be grateful for that.”
Washington was concerned that adding to his 21 Northern Ireland caps might be difficult playing in Scotland’s second tier this season. “If you’re the main striker in a team in the Scottish Championship, I think you might struggle to play international football,” he said.
“When you’re one of three or four who are rotated, especially in a shorter season, you are going to struggle even more to get that recognition. The Northern Ireland manager knows what I can do but he will want me playing games at as high a level as possible. That was definitely a factor.
“I seem to have got older out of nowhere and I’m 28 now so I need to be thinking about things like that. I want to get scoring regularly again because it’s been far too long.
“I’m feeling fitter than ever because I worked hard during lockdown, now I’m hoping for some success. It’s only eight years ago I wasn’t playing at all so I want to enjoy every training session and match.”
He didn’t enjoy last season much. No-one at Hearts did, yet it promised so much when Washington arrived last June. He was heralded by then-assistant manager Austin MacPhee as the man to emulate John Robertson and hit 20 goals in a season for the club for the first time since 1992.
“I knew John Robertson but I didn’t know the feats he achieved. They are second to none and that’s why he is so celebrated up there. The thing is, I play in a very different way to the strikers Hearts have had in recent years,” said Washington.
It became apparent that his style often did not collaborate with the team’s. “The way chances are created in Scottish football for a team like Hearts isn’t necessarily playing to my strengths. That’s something I should have looked at before I went up,” he admitted.
“When you go away to Ross County, they are sat on the edge of their box and their strikers are the ones spinning down the sides to chase balls into the channels. I was thinking it would be nice to play for teams like that but that isn’t how Hearts play.
“I thought that would be even more prevalent in the Scottish Championship. I felt there would be no room for me to do what I like to do, which is run in behind off the back of defenders. Maybe I’m wrong but I can’t imagine there being too much space in behind or expansive football played in the Championship.
“Because they are the third-biggest club in Scotland, teams come to work hard for a point against Hearts and then try to nick something. That is something we fell foul of. We had a lot of possession in games and couldn’t break through. Then we would get hit on the counter-attack.
“I’m not saying that isn’t a good way to play football because it’s exactly how I like to play. I totally respect that is a really viable way of playing in Scotland.”
Washington’s honesty doesn’t end there. He is one of a minority who believe MacPhee and manager Craig Levein should have stayed rather than be replaced by Daniel Stendel.
“The whole season and my contribution to it was so disappointing. Key players were injured and changing manager didn’t help. The new manager came in and tried to change a lot in a short space of time. Changing it so radically was always going to take longer. I just don’t think it was the right thing to do at that time.
“I know Craig and Austin as a duo were vilified towards the end but I still had faith in them. I know a lot of fans won’t like me saying that but they would have been a safe pair of hands with big players coming back from injury towards the end of the season.
“I don't think it would have been pretty or expansive football, and maybe we wouldn’t have got the results we did against bigger clubs, but I genuinely don’t think we would have lost as many games.”
He can’t change history but at Charlton, a club embroiled in a bitter takeover feud, the hope is for a brighter future after relegation to England's League One. “They were interested last year before I moved to Hearts,” revealed the forward. “The manager wanted me in for a meeting so I knew that interest was probably still there.
"They lost a striker [Lyle Taylor] at the end of last season. I’ve had a lucky knack of playing for really big clubs and Charlton is another one. They are one of the favourites to get out of League One, they have a great stadium and training ground, plus good players and a big history. I’ll try to immerse myself in that.”
A message from the Editor: Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you. The dramatic events of 2020 are having a major impact on many of our advertisers – and consequently the revenue we receive. We are now more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription to support our journalism. Subscribe to the Edinburgh Evening News online and enjoy unlimited access to trusted, fact-checked news and sport from Edinburgh and the Lothians. Visit https://www.edinburghnews.scotsman.com/subscriptions now to sign up.