The real football club business needing attention comes when he returns to Edinburgh. Hearts are beginning another busy summer to increase squad size and their chief executive will sign off paperwork on every deal.
McKinlay won Scotland’s CEO of the Year last month. He is now up for the British equivalent alongside Crystal Palace’s Phil Alexander, Dane Murphy of Nottingham Forest, Wigan’s Mal Brannigan and the Port Vale chief Colin Garlick.
In among the razzmatazz of glitzy award ceremonies, his thoughts are already on recruitment, finances and other issues at Tynecastle Park. Domestic and European football next season dictates a bigger playing pool and a number of signings will arrive over the coming weeks.
A result of this season’s remarkable run to third in the Premiership and the Scottish Cup final, Hearts will earn around £3.2million simply for taking part in the Europa League if they win August’s play-off tie.
Failure brings a parachute into the Europa Conference League and a tidy comparable of roughly £2.7m. Both amounts are separate from ticket sales and cash for points won on the pitch.
Funds to strengthen the playing staff therefore won’t be an issue. McKinlay’s discussions with sporting director Joe Savage and manager Robbie Neilson have centred around increasing the first-team squad from 21 to 24.
With five players definitely leaving – John Souttar to Rangers and loanees Alex Cochrane, Ellis Simms, Taylor Moore and Ben Woodburn returning to parent clubs in England – seven or eight new faces are anticipated.
That number may even touch double figures depending on outgoings and whether youngsters like Connor Smith can progress into the senior side after spending this season out on loan. It is a fluid situation. McKinlay acknowledges the power substantial European income gives Hearts.
“There are two financial game-changers in Scottish football: European group qualification and player trading,” he says, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “There is only so much you can do with your matchday income and Hearts do pretty well on that already. Prize money from the SPFL is what it is.
“We will need to invest in a bigger squad. It won’t just be jersey-fillers, it has to be guys good enough for the team. Robbie has talked about a net increase of three, taking the squad up to 24.
“We will be able to do that based on the money coming in. Other things around the stadium can also get done. We hope to have this money every year but you need to be careful not to overspend, whilst also realising this is our opportunity to really kick on as Scotland’s third-biggest club.
“We want to stamp our authority on that and we would also like to close the gap on the two teams above us.
“I’m not trying to get rid of any of our players but Europe is a different marketplace. It puts a different value on players once they reach that level and clubs start to appreciate them more. We’re on that hamster-wheel, now we want to stay on it.”
This summer is more a supplementation than the rebuilds of previous years. Hearts are a visibly more stable entity in all departments these days, hence McKinlay’s nomination for awards in the UK Capital. Patience will again be important as the people negotiating prepare to hold their nerve.
“Even last summer we were getting criticised because we had only signed one player, Alex Cochrane,” recalls McKinlay. “Everyone was like: ‘Well, they need to make loads of signings.’ As if we didn’t know that.
“The mantra at the time was ‘quality over quantity’ and I think that was borne out. Joe will tell you not all signings work. There is always an element of risk. Not all of our signings have done as well as we hoped but many have. We now have some really great footballers on long-term contracts.
“Some of the January business we did was so important, tying up the nucleus of the team on longer deals. Craig Gordon, Craig Halkett, Stephen Kingsley, Barrie McKay, Andy Halliday and Michael Smith all signed extensions.
“That was massive for the club. We need to do a lot of work this summer but we have that nucleus of a team there rather than needing to constantly rebuild.”
Approaching two years as Hearts chief executive, McKinlay sounds like a man happy at his work. Regardless whether he walks off with an accolade on Friday, he is in a fulfilling role with a progressive club and isn’t merely there for personal gain.
“These awards come when the team is doing well. It would be easy for me to use the cliché that’s it’s the players who get individual awards and just say, ‘it’s a team game’, etc. I think we have done well off the park but you just get on with those things to make sure you have that structure even if people don’t see it.
“I’m more than happy to speak as and when required. I do the odd interview but I’m not a big fan of speaking just for the sake of it. I was pretty excited coming into Hearts, even though we had just been demoted in 2020. It was a chance to reset things.
“We had just brought Robbie back and I’m a great admirer of his. We were working towards the transfer of ownership to Foundation of Hearts. We also wanted to get the sporting director model back.
“As a chief exec, I must make sure I have good people around me and that everything in the stadium runs well. I have a good finance director, a good community person, a good communications person, and I could go on. It’s one of the best, if not the best, executive teams in Scotland.”