Eyes, ears, TV cameras, photographers’ lenses and mobile phones will be fixed on Hearts winger Jamie Walker at Ibrox this weekend. Rangers’ pursuit of the 24-year-old isn’t over, meaning he inevitably becomes the focus of everyone’s attention when the two clubs meet.
Hearts have taken a hard line with Walker in recent weeks by leaving him out of matches against Dunfermline in the Betfred Cup and Celtic in the Ladbrokes Premiership. Even last weekend at Rugby Park, he remained an unused substitute. He may just return on the perfect stage to prove his point and underline his credentials as one of Scotland’s leading talents.
Hearts’ approach has been strong and uncompromising, designed to prompt a reaction from someone they felt wasn’t performing in training or games. Walker is known to respond to tough love and is now pushing hard for a starting place by impressing in Hearts’ training sessions this week.
He will doubtless see the grand Ibrox arena as something of a theatre in which to perform. Whether a move to Rangers materialises or not, how he reacts to three weeks without playing is certain to fascinate most observers.
“I think it could be the right approach Hearts have taken here,” said Darren Murray the former Riccarton youth coach who worked closely with the winger during his formative years.
“Jamie is that type of character who can look at times like he’s maybe not trying or giving his best. I’m a great believer with Jamie that you should show him that tough approach. I think he feeds off trying to prove people wrong to an extent. That’s what I got from him.
“It was a difficult process getting to know Jamie because he’s not the most vocal guy. He’s quite within himself but he’s a really good lad. I coached him for about a year just before Hearts sent him on loan to Raith Rovers [November 2011]. Nobody could get near him in the games we played. He was just sensational. His work rate was fantastic, everything about him at that time was bang-on.
“He had the right mentality and his fitness was top drawer. Whether Hearts have handled him correctly, we’ll find out come the weekend but I hope he does something special for Hearts. He gets fans off seats because you think something’s going to happen when he gets the ball. These are the types of players you want to see.”
Murray provides a unique insight into Walker’s character which perhaps illustrates why Hearts decided to omit him from their squad.
“I think the world of Jamie but he is sometimes difficult to get to know. Once he gets over that, he repays the trust you put in him with performances on the pitch,” added Murray.
“However, if you compliment him too much, I don’t think it’s the greatest thing for him. I was quite tough with Jamie, day in and day out. Sometimes that tough approach inspires him to do better. A lot of praise isn’t good for Jamie, I think he needs a bit of tough love at times and that’s what responded to with me. We had a great relationship.”
Murray has no doubt the winger will respond as the centre of attention amid a fervid atmosphere at Ibrox. “He’ll thrive on that, absolutely. This is the ideal opportunity for Jamie to go out and show everybody how good a player he is.
“He is strong enough to handle the attention now. Maybe a couple of years ago he wouldn’t have but he’s got a young son now so he’s definitely grown up a lot in the past year or two. I think he’ll handle Ibrox fine.
“If Jamie was playing to his maximum – and I mean his maximum in terms of fitness, mentality, everything – there isn’t a club in the country that wouldn’t take him. He is so talented. He’s probably Hearts’ best attacking threat when he’s 100 per cent. He’s a game-changer who scores goals, creates and sees things some other players don’t.”
The only decision appears to be whether Hearts’ interim head coach, Jon Daly, should play him from the start. Murray is unequivocal in his views. “As long as his mentality is good and his fitness is good, Jamie should always be in the Hearts team. There’s absolutely no doubt about that whatsoever,” he said. “If both of those things marry up, that boy would not only walk into the Hearts team but he could go anywhere.”
He would certainly hold down a place at Rangers but first they must submit an offer deemed acceptable by Hearts, who have made it clear they want a seven-figure sum for their prized asset. It is the most delicate of situations.
Rangers will return with another bid for Walker before the summer transfer window closes at the end of the month. So far, their best proposal has been a deal worth around £600,000 in total but offering just half that amount in up-front cash. Hearts are determined not to sell themselves short after recent experiences with Callum Paterson and Sam Nicholson, who both left on freedom of contract.
Like thousands of other Tynecastle regulars, Murray is keen to see one of his finest Riccarton academy graduates stay in Edinburgh.
“Jamie has to make sure he knuckles down and works extremely hard. He’s got to a point in his career now which is a really important stage,” said Murray, who is now head coach at Box Soccer training development programme. “He’s in the final year of his contract and we’ll need to wait and see whether he leaves in this transfer window or not.
“Being a Hearts supporter myself, it would be great to see him stay at the moment. Especially from now until Christmas because we all want him to pick up from where he left off in the middle of last season. He was absolutely flying at that point and scored so many goals from a wide midfield position.
“I like to see Jamie in the No.10 position. I think that’s what he’s really good at, playing in between the lines and picking up little bits of space. That’s only my personal opinion so it all depends on what structure Hearts are going to have at the weekend. We’ll see if Jamie starts or not.”
Whenever he makes an appearance, everyone’s gaze will be transfixed on the maroon No.7 with the jet-black hair. It may just inspire him to take centre stage.