How Barrie McKay's immediate impact is inspiring Hearts' Premiership surge
Hairbands and bright boots don’t always draw approval from Scottish football’s traditionalists. They can be viewed as somewhat fancy-dan, worn by flamboyant players lacking substance.
Barrie McKay is contradicting that theory whilst proving an astute signing for Hearts. The yellow footwear and head accessory set him apart visually, but the sorcery produced by those feet has heavily influenced his new club’s early-season Premiership challenge.
Four appearances so far have seen the winger grow in strength, providing key contributions to four of the team’s last five goals. He hasn’t yet found the net himself although evidence suggests that is merely a matter of time.
Hearts beat Livingston 3-0 and Motherwell 2-0 in their last two games, both at Tynecastle Park, with McKay a central figure. The wide-right role in a 3-4-3 formation suits his attacking intentions as a player of pace, skill and vision.
Against Livingston, he created the opening goal with a smart hip swivel on the right touchline which completely eliminated Liverpool loanee Adam Lewis. McKay then scarpered off and crossed for Alex Cochrane to cushion the ball back towards Michael Smith, who lashed it into the net.
The second goal that afternoon originated from another McKay crossfield delivery to Cochrane. This time the ball was rolled back to Cameron Devlin, who moved it on to Beni Baningime before Ben Williamson’s clumsy challenge on the Congolese.
McKay responded with two clenched fists as a penalty was awarded for Liam Boyce to convert. At the third goal, he collected possession inside the area and supplied a perfect low ball across the face of goal for Cochrane arriving to score at the back post.
He continued in the same vein against Motherwell with an intelligent reverse pass sending Boyce through to win the penalty from which the Northern Irishman got the opener.
All of the above becomes more noteworthy with McKay still working towards optimum fitness. He arrived at Tynecastle Park as a free agent last month after leaving Swansea City in June. A personal trainer conditioned him physically throughout the summer.
“I think he has been excellent. He’s done exactly what I thought he would,” said Robbie Neilson, the Hearts manager, in conversation with the Evening News. “I said previously that I’d chased Barrie for two or three years and I think playing here at Tynecastle will suit him down to a tee.
“The surface is brilliant, we get a lot of the ball, he gets one-versus-ones and it gets the crowd behind him. I think he will really enjoy it here. He still has a bit to go with his fitness but we have good options if he needs a rest.”
Which he does at times. Only one of his four outings in maroon lasted 90 minutes, although Hearts’ competition in wide areas means getting a full game is a task in itself regardless of fitness.
McKay started the last three games and is more than justifying his selection. Ben Woodburn, the on-loan Liverpool forward, is also in favour. Josh Ginnelly has been nursing an ankle complaint lately and Gary Mackay-Steven is waiting patiently to regain a spot in the first XI.
Next guy coming in
“Gary came on for 20 minutes on Saturday. Josh didn’t get on, Jamie Walker didn’t get on, Armand Gnanduillet didn’t get on,” Neilson pointed out. “The key for me is that we have 20 really good players – 18 outfield and two goalkeepers. It’s about trying to keep all of them as fit as possible.
“Everyone will need to play their part. There will be periods during the season where guys will pick up injuries or maybe a wee loss of form. Then it's about the next guy coming in and everyone sticking together.”
McKay may watch the Scotland squad with a degree of envy this week ahead of vital World Cup qualifiers against Israel and the Faroe Islands. His solitary international cap came five years ago as an 84th minute substitute in a 3-0 friendly defeat against France.
Still only 26, he is among a band of players with the potential to force himself towards Steve Clarke’s group if club form continues. “There are some really good players in that area for Scotland. However, if Barrie continues to do it and we continue up the top end of the league, then I don’t see why not,” said Neilson.
There appears to be greater emphasis on attack at Hearts compared to last term. McKay, Gnanduillet, Woodburn and Mackay-Steven all arrived since January, whilst Ginnelly’s loan was converted into a permanent deal during the summer.
Those figures and others underpin a playing style based around high intensity which other Premiership teams have found difficult to combat so far. Fourteen goals in eight league games is not a bad return but Neilson is still demanding more.
“These guys in the forward areas, that’s what they do. Everyone else is there to support them,” he explained. “The wing-backs are there to support the wingers. Then in midfield we’re asking Beni Baningime and Cameron Devlin, or whoever else might play in there, to try and get forward into the box.
“I think that’s the next step for those two. Can they get goals? Can one of them get up and get on the end of something? To be fair to them, they both had a few shots at the weekend there which shows they are starting to do that. It’s another wee step forward.”