Standing on the track at New Victoria Park in Newtongrange, it could easily be the Maracana as far as Kevin McHattie is concerned.
The Hearts left-back has just finished his third Development League match after recovering from a torn medial knee ligament. He is back doing what he loves and is now itching for a first-team return. A three-month absence is hard to bear when your team are romping away with the league.
McHattie played 90 minutes in yesterday’s Development game with Celtic and looked confident, strong and determined. Any niggling concerns about the knee Kenny Miller injured with a reckless tackle at Tynecastle last November appear well gone. He rampaged up and down the left-flank and tackled with tenacity against a competitive Celtic side. The onlooking Stevie Crawford, Hearts’ assistant coach, and director of football Craig Levein, would have noted the player’s voracity.
A return to the senior squad this weekend would bring further joy for McHattie after a winter of discontent. He and Soufian El Hassnaoui both missed three months each as a result of late challenges from Rangers players that day last November. Brad McKay got off lightly when clattered by Kris Boyd near the end of Hearts’ 2-0 win. The club soared ahead in the Scottish Championship in the interim to the point where Hearts are just a handful of wins from securing the league title.
It’s been great to watch, but also difficult to stomach when you can’t play. McHattie is merely grateful he is back in time to enjoy the run-in. “The knee is completely out of my mind now. I had two weeks training before I played my first under-20 game. I was just delighted to be back, flying into tackles,” he told the Evening News.
“Last season, I had a hamstring problem and was out for a bit but I didn’t even play an under-20 game. I was just thrown right back in. Now we have strength in depth in the squad so you can take your time coming back. That’s a credit to Craig Levein and the gaffer [Robbie Neilson], and obviously Ann Budge has come in and put funding into help.
“I’m looking forward to hopefully playing a part between now and the end of the season. Every player here wants to play a part, even the young boys in the under-20s. I think you’ll see them get a glimpse of things and I hope they do because they’re all friends and you want everyone to be part of it.”
Recalling being stretchered down the Tynecastle touchline that day against Rangers, McHattie admitted he didn’t know how serious the injury was. Once back in the home dressing-room, he was examined by Hearts medical staff and told there was a problem with his medial ligament.
“I was just worried. I wasn’t sure what was wrong,” he said. “The doctor said it was my medial and it was away. I just wanted to know a timescale for being out after that. I’d been taken off at Dumbarton a few weeks before that with the same problem, although it wasn’t as bad. I was out for two or three weeks. Then when it happened against Rangers it was worse.
“Rob Marshall, our physio said I would be back. The timescale given was two months but it took a wee bit longer.
“On the scan it was a grade one/grade two tear. I think it was more a grade two and Rob said that to me. It was hard back then but it’s great to be back training and playing now.
“You want to be playing. You’re a footballer and that’s what you want to do. That’s what you get paid for because it’s your job and you love it. It does put a downer on you being injured but you have friends, family and a girlfriend to keep you going through it.
“Team-mates pull you through as well. I’ve had big Callum [Paterson] and Brad [McKay] who have been with me all the way. It’s brilliant to have that.
“It gets you down watching and you can’t take part, but you’re delighted for the boys going out every week and producing results like a 10-0 win against Cowdenbeath. That’s magnificent for them to go and do that. They just need to keep plugging away because we’re in this together.
“The coaching staff have been a massive help for me as well. The gaffer speaks to me most days and so do Jacko [Jack Ross, under-20 coach] and Craw [Crawford].
“They tell me how I can improve and become better. That’s going to make me a better player and get me back to where I want to be.”
Despite missing three months of one of the most enjoyable campaigns in Hearts’ history, McHattie stressed he doesn’t harbour any anger over Miller’s challenge. “When the tackle came in, I didn’t think it was that bad. It was when the doc was testing the knee out, that was when I realised it was pretty serious. The doc was saying: ‘It’s your medial. You’ve either torn it or jarred it.’ It turned out it was torn but that’s football, you’ve just got to get on with it.
“The ball was there to be won and he’s gone in trying to win it. That was one of those games which was massive in terms of the title for both clubs. Every player was going for it. I’ve no ill-feeling towards him. You’ve just got to deal with these things.”