Exclusive: Barrie McKay's Hearts trophy wish, first goal wait and love for junior football ahead of Auchinleck Talbot tie

The Ayrshire juniors. It's not for the faint-hearted. Sometimes it's even too much for the brave-hearted.

Friday, 21st January 2022, 8:00 am

Auchinleck Talbot are the lords of a uniquely-humbling football environment Hearts will enter this weekend. A Scottish Cup fourth-round tie at Beechwood Park carries genuine danger, even for a top-end cinch Premiership club.

Hostile atmospheres are commonplace in the junior world where cutting comments from crumbling terracings are a vital part of the experience. Occasional running battles between rival fans bring nothing more than shrugged shoulders. Likewise uncompromising tackles on the park.

Hearts forward Barrie McKay loves the intense, raw culture and regularly visits his local junior team for that very reason. The Barrhead-born forward watches mates play for Arthurlie whenever the opportunity arises and always leaves chuckling at the verbal mickey-taking.

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Hearts forward Barrie McKay is in good form after the winter break.

He is well prepared for what awaits Hearts in Auchinleck, a small Ayrshire town famous largely for the exploits of its local football team. Talbot are regular slayers of bigger clubs: Hamilton fell at Beechwood in the previous round, Ayr United were knocked out there three years ago.

Like most others at that level, Talbot are now a lower-pyramid club as opposed to just a junior side since joining the tier six West of Scotland League. They currently sit second in the Premier Division, eight points behind leaders Pollock with four games in hand. The race for that title would be worth a television deal for any broadcaster. The winner get a chance of promotion to the Lowland League.

“All my mates are telling me Auchinleck are the best team in the juniors,” said McKay, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “They like to play football and the pitch is good, all that sort of stuff.

“It's been a while since I played at a junior ground but I'm looking forward to it. This is certainly going to be a difficult challenge but any game nowadays is difficult. We need to go there and put on a performance to get through to the next round.

“I think last time I played in the Ayrshire juniors was when I was a young kid at Rangers. We played, Beith but that was years ago. If I'm off on a Saturday I enjoy going to games at that level.

“A lot of my mates play junior, a few of them play with Arthurlie. That's my local team and it's always good to go down and watch them. You hear all the shouts at those games, whereas you don't hear them with bigger crowds at our games. It's a real community-built level of football and I think it's brilliant.

“I go to these games to watch my mates but you get a good laugh and come away with a few smiles. I get to have my opinion on how they played rather than them having an opinion on how I played.

“I haven't been down to Auchinleck since I was a kid so I don't really remember that much about it. It's a game I'm really looking forward to. It's been a while since I played in the Scottish Cup as well.”

Five years to be precise. McKay knows the tournament’s value, particularly this year when the winners will guarantee European group-stage football in either the Europa League or Europa Conference League.

Hearts, of course, need no reminding of the horror non-league teams can inflict upon more illustrious visitors. The Brora Rangers debacle last March is still sufficiently fresh in the minds of everyone at Riccarton to act as a warning for Auchinleck.

“We want to win every game in cup competitions and league. You come to the big clubs because you want to win trophies. You want to win as many trophies as you can in your career,” said McKay.

He is a winger in scintillating form heading into the tie. The 27-year-old enjoys regular direct and indirect involvement in Hearts’ goals and claimed two assists in Tuesday night’s 2-0 Premiership win over St Johnstone at Tynecastle Park.

His sorcery is reaching talismanic levels and will likely be needed to prise open the Auchinleck defence this weekend. “I think the winter break did me good. I didn't have a pre-season. I came to Hearts and just got straight into the games,” he pointed out.

“We had our fitness programmes to follow while we had some time off. It was just a case of doing that and getting the chance to recharge and get ready for the second half of the season.

“The break gave me a chance to do that and I feel really sharp since I got back to training. I felt sharp in the game on Tuesday as well. I've said before that I'm in the team to create chances. Obviously I'd like to get a goal at some point but I'm glad to be contributing to the team.”

Waiting for that first goal in maroon is slightly frustrating but, for the player, it isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. “You can't let it get you down. I'm getting chances and having shots. As long as the team is winning, I'm not really bothered who is scoring,” said McKay.

“As I said, I'm still contributing to the team, whether it's getting assists or playing well and creating opportunities. That's what I'm in the team to do and that's what I'll continue to do.”

Others are finding the net and benefiting from McKay’s creativity, such as fellow forward Josh Ginnelly. He scored both goals against St Johnstone from McKay supply.

“When I get on the ball and look up, he is always making runs in behind,” said McKay. “As a forward-thinking player, when people run in behind then you need to find them. If you don't then they will stop making those runs. Thankfully Gino got two goals on Tuesday and I thought he was outstanding.”

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