This season continues to reap huge rewards for young Jamie Walker.
He is a nominee for both Scotland’s Young Player of the Year and Championship Player of the Year awards and is already a title winner with Hearts. The plaudits are endless, but the crowning moment is another week away.
Walker enters Cowdenbeath’s Central Park tomorrow with a huge cause in what is essentially a meaningless league fixture. Like many of his team-mates, he is desperate to ensure his place in the team next weekend when Rangers visit Tynecastle. The season’s final league game doubles as a day of celebration with the Championship trophy being handed out at full-time. No-one wants to miss out.
Walker has supported Hearts since childhood and has dreamt of parading silverware around Tynecastle over and over again. First, a strong display against Cowdenbeath is vital to ensure he takes part. Eight goals in his last 15 games denote a player in peak form but the 21-year-old is taking nothing for granted.
“Everyone will want to start the game against Rangers when we’ll lift the league trophy,” he told the Evening News. “I don’t think anybody will be resting on their laurels against Cowdenbeath. We’ll be giving it the gun and hopefully put in a good performance.
“Ever since the league title was confirmed, I’ve had this Rangers game in the back of my mind. I’m a Hearts fan and have been all my life. To win a trophy and lift it at Tynecastle will be brilliant for me and my family.”
Last time Hearts faced Cowdenbeath, less than two months ago, they managed a record 10-0 win. A repeat is unlikely this weekend. A 2-0 win at Central Park two days before Christmas is the reference point for Walker and his team-mates.
“It’s tough up at Central Park. The pitch is very tight and when you’ve got the ball you don’t have much time. We showed last time we went there that we can handle it. We played very well and could’ve been a few goals up in the first half.
“We’ll go there tomorrow and just try to play our normal game. If it turns into a battle, we can handle that side of it as well. The pressure is off us so hopefully we can go out, pass the ball around, create a few chances and score a few goals.”
Helping Walker prosper this season has been a slight change in position. He grew up in the Riccarton youth academy predominantly as a tricky winger who was comfortable on either flank, able to eliminate opponents, deliver crosses and supply goals. In recent months, he has functioned to devastating effect in the traditional No.10 role behind a central striker.
The results have been quite staggering. Walker has 11 goals in total this season and is in the running for two prestigious awards voted for by his peers. His finest campaign as a professional is nearing an end and he would be forgiven for wishing for an extension.
He recalled the moment Robbie Neilson, Hearts’ head coach, propelled him into the No.10 role. “He just threw me in and told me I was playing in that position. It was the derby at Easter Road [last October] when Alim scored the late equaliser,” said the player. “I came on and played just off the front. I felt I did quite well that day and my season really just took off from then. I think the manager liked me in there and he’s kept playing me there. I can make space for others in that position and, when you’ve got someone like Genero [Zeefuik] or Osman [Sow] up front, you can bounce one-twos off them. They can hold the ball up for you so it’s a good way to link up.
“I enjoy it in there and it’s helped my goal ratio a lot. There are less defensive duties in there, which is quite good for me. I like playing in there but I’m happy playing out wide as well. Wherever I’m picked, I’m just happy to be playing as long as I’m in the team.
“I don’t mind if I start as a winger or as a No.10. I’m just delighted when I’m playing but I hope the gaffer has been happy with me in the No.10 role. I’ve been playing there for a few weeks now and it’s gone well. I hadn’t really played there before but it doesn’t matter. If you’re a wide player, you can play anywhere across the front. I’ve adapted to it quite well.”
Playing with such freedom will be difficult in the tight confines of Central Park. However, Walker is still determined to shine ahead of the assignment with Rangers. Hearts returned to winning form against Raith Rovers last week following defeat against Hibs. Walker admits momentum has slowed since automatic promotion was secured last month.
“A few weeks ago, if we beat Raith 2-1 then we’d have been delighted. I think because the title is wrapped up now we want to top it off with good performances and a few goals each week. Raith scored near the end and it made for a cagey finish. That’s maybe why it was a bit flat.
“It’s just a natural thing. We lost against Rangers and we lost against Hibs. We beat Alloa but I don’t think we played that well. We’re playing for Hearts and this is a big club, so we need to try and keep the performances up and keep winning games.
“I’ve been playing well and I go out every week trying to have a good game. I want to play well in the last two games and take that into pre-season and then the start of next season. This has been a good year for me but it’s not finished yet.”