No longer is Billy King the timid kid with fragile confidence. Maturity is transforming him into a strong, mentally tough young footballer; one hitting form at the perfect time to help Hearts’ title push.
The 20-year-old winger has played just 20 minutes in his club’s last two matches but three assists illustrate a player making an incisive impact.
Roars of relief from Hearts fans were heard all around Almondvale and across Livingston town centre late on Saturday afternoon. They were prompted by King, whose cameo role as a substitute changed the game. With the score 1-1 and eight minutes to play, he crossed for new signing Kenny Anderson to head the visitors into a 2-1 lead before supplying Jamie Walker for the third in a gritty 3-2 victory. Add those to his corner-kick for Callum Paterson’s header at Alloa the previous week and it is clear King’s contributions are telling.
However, he first had to overcome a test of mental strength before flourishing against Livingston. In the 79th minute of the match – three minutes after he had replaced James Keatings – King played a wayward pass towards the right flank which whizzed straight out the park for a throw-in. Howls of derision from frustrated Hearts fans were his reward.
Last season he might have crumbled, this year he produced the perfect response. Within five minutes he had teed up two goals to secure a vital win and put Hearts 19 points clear at the top of the Scottish Championship. He is still coping with a minor ankle injury but is determined to play his part in the title quest.
“I had a slight problem on my ankle. I’ve just been taking care of it, like icing it after training and missing a few sessions and things,” explained King in an exclusive Evening News interview. “It’s getting back towards 100 per cent now so it’s looking good. I’m still doing well in training so I wasn’t losing any confidence because of it and I’ve done well when I’ve come on in games. Hopefully I can keep that going.
“Last season, I would’ve lost confidence and you could see that. This season I’m mentally stronger. I think the reason for it is just a process of growing up. It’s about mental development as well, which is a big part of the game. I think that’s played a big part for me this season, as well as the fact I’m getting older.”
Two assists inside 14 minutes in West Lothian outline his now unshakeable self-belief. “I got the ball out wide and was thinking about putting a cross in first time, but I turned and fronted the defender up. I dribbled into the box, cut inside on to my right foot and then I saw Kenny standing in good space. I tried to pick him out and he produced a good finish with a good header into the corner.
“For the second one, the ball broke to me and I slipped Jamie through. He did brilliantly to take on the defender and shoot across the goalie. We needed those two goals to get the win. It’s good to get a couple of assists. I just do my best to help the team. It was 1-1 when I came on and I tried to do my best to create chances and ended up with two assists, which I’m pleased with. I’m more pleased with the three points, though, because that’s the biggest thing for us.”
King now intends to hone fitness levels as the ankle problem subsides. “I played in the under-20s game last week just to get a wee bit of fitness because I’ve not been playing or training much for the last few weeks,” he said. “It was good to come into the game on Saturday and get two assists. I thought I did well when I came on and it was good for my confidence because I hadn’t played or trained regularly in a while. I want to get a full week’s training under my belt and improve my fitness.”
He knows there are vital games on the horizon with Hearts striving for automatic promotion back to the Scottish Premiership. Their performance levels have peaked and fallen sharply in recent matches and forced a more resilient and dogged approach. Livingston was a perfect example. The West Lothian club belied their status as the league’s bottom team by matching Hearts for long periods and could have been ahead before King’s late intervention.
“It wasn’t our best performance but the most important thing was getting the three points, especially at this time of the season,” stressed the winger. “We’re in a wee bit of a sticky patch but we had a good result against Alloa last week so the most important thing was winning at Livingston.
“You do need to dig in. At the start of the season, we were doing really well and playing some nice football. Once teams have played you two or three times then they get to know how you’re going to play. It’s going to be more difficult as time goes on because teams know how to play against us.
“Most people will say that the most important thing is winning. Even when you aren’t playing well, win ugly. Saturday is the sort of game that will win titles so it’s a big statement to put out. Obviously we haven’t played our best at all but we’ve managed to dig out the result. That’s what winners are made of.
“We all know we need to perform better but we’ve won the game. You can play nice, attractive football in every single game. We showed on Saturday that we can win ugly and that’s a big thing.”