Exclusive: Hearts boss Robbie Neilson on why Jamie Walker must ´bide his time'
When Jamie Walker returned to Hearts for his second spell in June 2019, there were high hopes that the winger could recapture the form he showed back in season 2016/17, when 15 goals had him being touted for a Scotland call-up.
It hasn’t quite worked out like that. A broken leg and a knee injury hindered him during his first season back at Tynecastle Park.
Although he certainly played his part in last season’s Championship title-winning success, scoring eight goals in 26 appearances, the 28-year-old has barely featured at all this season.
Yet to start a match, he has made just six appearances as a substitute all season. The last of them was on September 18 when he replaced Gary Mackay-Steven for the last 25 minutes away to Ross County.
He was an unused substitute for the 2-0 loss at Motherwell, but didn’t even make the 18-man match-day squad against St Mirren on Saturday, despite being available for selection.
With his contract up next summer, Walker has his work cut out to force his way back into contention and earn a new deal. Competition for places in his position is fiercer than anywhere else on the pitch, particularly after Ben Woodburn and Barrie McKay were added to the squad at the end of August and early September.
Gary Mackay-Steven and Josh Ginnelly are also contesting a place in the front three, with Neilson generally opting for two creative forwards to buzz around and support Liam Boyce as the central striker in a 3-4-3 formation. Armand Gnanduillet is the other option as a target man.
Walker was working hard to improve his fitness levels at the start of the season and Neilson insists he is fit and available. It’s simply a case of biding his time and being ready to seize his chance when it comes.
“He’s fine,” the Hearts head coach told the Edinburgh Evening News. “It’s just that we have 17 outfield players, in my opinion – 18 if you count young Finlay Pollock.
“We can only put 16 on the bench when everyone is full fit, so Finlay has been with the under-18s and Jamie has been the one over the last couple of weeks who has not made that group of 16, but it is part and parcel of being a football player. Your job and what you’re paid for is to train and be ready to play. To Jamie’s credit, he is. He’s just not getting in.”
Part of the explanation for that is the method Neilson uses to select his subs. His formula, quite simply, ensures that there is adequate cover in all areas of the pitch. There are two slots on the bench for wingers or attacking midfielders, but when Mackay-Steven, Ginnelly, McKay and Woodburn are all fit and available, Walker has generally been the one to miss out.
“Jamie is part of the squad,” said Neilson. “When you look at our bench, we have a really strong bench. We have to have a look at a striker, two 10s, midfielder, defensive midfielder and a defender, so I have to pick who goes on the bench.
“The issue we have at the moment, touch wood, is that we have no injuries, but we have to keep a squad. So Jamie just has to bide his time, like Aaron McEneff had to bide his time, like Peter Haring had to bide his time. It’s just the way it is.
“Competition for places is key. At the start of the season we didn’t have it. We played the cup games and even in the first cup games we didn’t have competition.
“We managed to get that by getting Woodburn in, getting Mackay in. We’ve got Gnanduillet too. Midfielder wise, we’ve got competition in there. That’s the most important thing. It’s up to people, once they are in, to stay in.”
Neilson still believes the man who has played more than 200 games for the club can have a part to play this season and beyond. But if he’s to earn a new contract, Walker must continue to work hard in training and take his chance when it comes.
“There are a number of players like that,” said Neilson. “They’ve got to earn that right to get the next deal. We’re still early in the season. Players will come and go in January as well, so it is up to the players who are out of contract to earn the right to be here.”
Walker certainly earned the right at the start of his career when he progressed quickly through the ranks after entering the academy system in 2009.
A first-team debut followed in 2012 and he went on to score 40 goals in 181 competitive appearances over a five-and-a-half-year period before moving south to Wigan Athletic for an undisclosed fee in January 2018. He did win promotion from League One with the Latics that season but he didn’t get a chance to feature in the English Championship.
A loan spell at Peterborough United back in League One was cut short through injury, but it was Craig Levein who brought him back to Hearts two years ago.
Walker has scored more than 50 career goals for Hearts and despite suggestions that he is not quite the same player who tore it up when making his initial breakthrough at Tynecastle nine years ago, at 28 he still has something to offer. Some fans must be wondering why he hasn’t been given more of a chance this season.
He did score when coming off the bench against Inverness in the Premier Sports Cup group match in July. But in total, he’s had only 110 minutes on the pitch this season.
The next time he does get a chance to impress, Walker must make sure every minute counts.