Hearts set to attack Celtic with two wingers as Gary Mackay-Steven says he feels like a different player
The prospect of Gary Mackay-Steven and Josh Ginnelly running mercilessly at a vulnerable Celtic defence leaves Hearts fans salivating ahead of tonight.
Sky Sports will broadcast a potentially seismic opening Premiership fixture from Tynecastle Park, where the hosts sense a chance to exploit opponents rocked by a Champions League qualifying exit to Danish club Midtjylland on Wednesday.
Celtic’s back four should be strengthened by Carl Starfelt, a £4.2million signing from Rubin Kazan, making his debut. Yet weaknesses remain both in wide areas and centrally. Hearts’ new 3-4-3 formation is designed to capitalise with wingers Mackay-Steven and Ginnelly expected to flank striker Liam Boyce.
Ginnelly is fresh from an injury-interrupted loan period last season and is now a permanent Edinburgh resident. Mackay-Steven – a former Parkhead player – joined Hearts in January from New York City FC and is now reaching his full potential having completed a full pre-season campaign.
The pace and panache of both players will be vital attacking weapons if newly-promoted Hearts are to upset Celtic and start their league campaign with a statement of intent.
“This is what I envisaged when I signed. It’s where Hearts should be. These games coming up are exciting and I want to be part of that,” said Mackay-Steven. “I’m looking forward to it now. The build-up has been good, our pre-season has been good, but this is the real stuff now. I’m just relishing it.”
Night and day
Asked about his physical progress now compared to January, he replied: “Night and day. Really good. The Championship is a tough league. When I came in, I wasn’t in my peak condition. Every player would say the same. Having a pre-season is so important.
“You come in, get your work done, get the manager’s ideas of how he wants to play – just get to know the boys a bit better as well. We’ve got a great changing room here and, personally, I feel really comfortable. I’m looking ahead to hopefully kicking off with a good game.”
The gradual improvement over recent months is something Mackay-Steven expected when he returned to Scotland. He now resembles the player we often saw running riot for Dundee United and Aberdeen in the not-too-distant past.
“It wasn’t frustrating last season, I just knew there would be a lot of games and I had had a break coming back over from America. With quarantine and stuff I was straight into games and trying to get my fitness that way.
“It wasn’t easy and the games were tough, too. It was just a process that I knew would take time, but we’re here now. I’ve had a great pre-season and I’m coming into the start of the season, and everything’s good. I feel great, personally – mentally and physically – so I can’t wait to get going, really.”
Four months in the Championship were the means to an end for a 30-year-old Scotland internationalist whose talent certainly belongs in the top flight. With promotion secured in April, Mackay-Steven is hoping for a touch more freedom than he got against tightly-packed second-tier defences.
“It's a tough league and it provides different challenges. Teams play different ways,” he explained. “Some teams try to play, some teams just camp in and it's not easy. Maybe from the outside, Hearts should be beating lesser teams by three or four goals every game but it doesn't work like that.
“It's great to come through it and the boys are all the stronger for the experience. Now we feel like we're playing in a league we should be playing in. It's up to us to show how good a team we are. Hopefully against Celtic we can play the game we want to play and impose ourselves.”
Baptism of fire
Much of the Parkhead personnel has changed since Mackay-Steven played in a hooped shirt. He feels he is “definitely a better player for all my experiences” and is aware of Celtic’s unconvincing form as new manager Ange Postecoglou settles in.
A trip to Tynecastle, even with only 5,272 fans permitted entry, is a proverbial Premiership baptism of fire for the Greek-born Australian. He has complained subtly about slow action at board level regarding new signings and the Champions League exit is the worst possible start to a campaign.
From Hearts’ perspective, is it a good time to encounter Celtic? “Time will tell,” said Mackay-Steven.
“They've got a few games under their belt as well and they'll be looking forward to putting down a marker for their manager. They've still got top players so we know their strengths but we want to focus on ourselves. It's a good game for us.
“We need to soak all that [expectation] up from the outside because playing for Hearts, you need to cope with that. You need to go out and expect to win every game because it's a massive club.
“Whether that's Celtic or against teams in the Championship, we're going out to win and represent a massive club with a massive fanbase, who have expectations. In-house, the players have expectations as well.”
The winger’s own expectations for the season ahead will remain a closely-guarded secret. “I’ve got targets but I like to keep them personal. I just want to stay fit and contribute in every game, whether that’s chipping in with goals or assists.
“I’d like to be making a difference in every single game, playing in forward areas, just create and be a nuisance for the other team, and play some good football.”
If he gets off the starting blocks quickly this evening, Hearts’ chances of springing a surprise will drastically increase.