Exclusive: Barrie McKay opens up on ankle surgery, playing through pain to help Hearts and refusing to use excuses

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Tynecastle winger is back to play a part in big games

Coincidences occur frequently in football at all levels. Barrie McKay returning just as Hearts record their two most convincing wins of the season so far isn’t one of them. His recovery from ankle surgery has been long-awaited, not least by the player himself, and he is now beginning to resemble his old influential self again.

The timing is perfect. Thursday night’s pulsating victory over Norwegian club Rosenborg gave lift-off to a campaign still in its infancy. McKay returned from injury as a substitute and then played from the start in Sunday’s 4-0 Viaplay Cup stroll against Partick Thistle. To say he is relieved is an understatement after a tortuously long summer.

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“It definitely did drag on,” he says, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “Especially when all the boys are training and playing pre-season games. Then the season starts and you are on the sidelines. You’re itching to go and they are trying to hold you back a wee bit.

“You always have banter about it but they know what they are doing here. They try to make sure you are ready. They don’t want you going back in and breaking down, then there is another injury to worry about. Now it’s about building up my match fitness.

“Thankfully, since I’ve come back, I’ve been able to make some sort of impact. I feel good and sharp. I obviously still have a wee bit of rustiness from not playing many games, but I feel fit. I’ve done all my rehab stuff, done all the work with the physios and sports scientists, so I feel ready.”

He will need to be ready this week. PAOK Salonika visit Tynecastle Park on Thursday night in the first leg of the Europa Conference League play-off. The return leg is seven days later in Greece and Hearts are facing a stringent test of their credentials. PAOK eliminated Beitar Jerusalem of Israel 4-1 on aggregate before a 3-0 aggregate win over the Croatian club Hajduk Split to reach the play-off stage.

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The reward for whoever prevails is a place in the Conference League group phase, something Hearts experienced last year. “Last Thursday night was the big one. It gives us a chance of getting into the groups. Sunday’s win puts us into the next round of the cup. That’s why we are here, to win trophies,” McKay points out.

Barrie McKay is back from injury to help Hearts domestically and in Europe. Pic: SNSBarrie McKay is back from injury to help Hearts domestically and in Europe. Pic: SNS
Barrie McKay is back from injury to help Hearts domestically and in Europe. Pic: SNS

“I’ve looked sharp in training, that’s why they put me in last Thursday. I need to keep building on it. The only way you are going to get ready is by playing games. I feel ready to do that. We know we need to be defensively sound. You need that to progress in Europe against good teams. We have looked a good, solid unit and we have players up the top end who can create and score.

“We showed great character to come back against Rosenborg. Now this is a chance to get to the groups. Most of the squad have played in Europe and the new players have really added quality. The end goal is group-stage football and we are two ties away from that.”

Hearts have scored seven goals and conceded one in their last two matches, so there is confidence to be taken from form. They lost two goals away from home in the first half against Rosenborg and then one at Tynecastle. Domestically, they have yet to concede. McKay’s return adds some sorcery in attack where new signings Kenneth Vargas, Kyosuke Tagawa and Alex Lowry are competing for places alongside established faces like Lawrence Shankland, Liam Boyce, Alan Forrest and Yutaro Oda.

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“You look at the talent we have going forward. Shanks scores all the time,” says McKay. “I always look at my own performance first. I know I need to be performing. We have real competition so, if you aren’t doing it, then you won’t play.”

With the ankle now healed, McKay can reflect on a demanding period towards the end of last season. Pain from the injury persisted and he needed surgery, however Hearts’ quest for a strong finish to the campaign took precedence. The 28-year-old is experienced enough to know the situation and why the pitch was priority over the operating theatre.

“I would never use it as an excuse. I could have got the op sooner but I played through it. Yeah, it was sore, but you just get on with it,” he says. “I wouldn’t use it as an excuse for not playing well in a game because there were plenty of games where I did play well and the ankle issue was still there.

“A lot of people can use it as an excuse. As soon as you have a bad game: ‘Oh, but my ankle is sore.’ That wasn’t the case. I just got on with it because I wanted to play every game until the end of the season, then get the op.

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“If you ask the managers, if they didn’t feel they needed me then they would probably have told me to get it done earlier. I would have gone against it because I wanted to play the games. If I wasn’t going to play a part then they would probably have pulled the trigger early. I knew what was required over the summer.

“Now that’s over, I’m back playing and feeling good. I’m looking forward to the games coming up and I’m hoping to play my part.”