Jamie Walker gives his view on sub role at Hearts and explains what title win would mean
Jamie Walker’s argument for a starting place at Hearts grows stronger by the week.
He isn’t the type to start banging on manager Robbie Neilson’s office door making demands, preferring to conduct business quietly and prove a point on the pitch.
Walker started six of the club’s last nine matches as a substitute but came on to score important goals on three of those occasions. He claimed the second in Saturday’s 2-0 win against Ayr United in the latest installment of his quest to reclaim a starting slot.
He previously struck the winning goal against Dunfermline in January before a crucial equaliser against Morton last month. Neilson wants the 27-year-old to improve his fitness and Walker admitted he must accept the manager’s decision when it comes to the line-up.
“There hasn't really been a reason. It's just the gaffer's team selection. I respect that, obviously,” he said, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “When I get on the pitch I just try to contribute to the team. Thankfully, the last few times I've come on I've managed to do that.”
After watching his team move 15 points clear at the top of the Championship table at the weekend, Neilson was asked about Walker. “He’s doing well and just needs to get his fitness levels up. He’ll play in a bounce game at Partick on Sunday,” he replied.
Walker possesses just the kind of sorcery Hearts need to breach some rather militant Championship defences. Now in his second spell with the club, the Riccarton youth academy graduate knows that, with seven games remaining, every point is vital in the pursuit of automatic promotion.
Saturday brought another three but only after Hearts were contained for a long period by a resilient Ayr side. The visitors instantly adopted new manager David Hopkin’s defensive instructions and made life difficult at Tynecastle Park.
Armand Gnanduillet’s header on 72 minutes broke the resistance after Andy Irving’s delightful free-kick landed on the Frenchman’s head. Walker secured victory when another cross ball, this time from Michael Smith, landed in his path via Gervane Kastaneer’s head.
“I think one of the Ayr defenders headed it onto his head. Then Gervane went to head it and it fell to me at the edge of the box. I caught it sweetly and it went into the net so I was delighted,” said Walker.
Put to bed
“It was an important time in the game and I was really happy to see it go in. That put the game to bed. I had a chance before which I probably should have scored, so it was good to make up for that one.”
Hearts and their supporters are now ticking games off on the calendar as they count down to a likely Premiership return. They could officially win the Championship title in three weeks’ time at Dunfermline if results go their way between now and then.
“Regardless of anything else, we want to turn up and we want to win football matches,” said Walker. “We will take each game as it comes but hopefully we are back in the Premiership where we belong sooner rather than later.
“A few of the games we drew were away from home and it's never easy at some of the other grounds. The last couple of games have been at Tynecastle and that has helped us build a wee bit of momentum.
“We've got a decent gap at the top now and we just want to keep building on that to try to increase it.”
That cushion comes with the club on a run of eight games without defeat – five victories and three draws. Yet they have endured criticism for certain defeats and performances this term.
Hearts’ previous campaign in Scotland’s second tier ended in runaway success, also under Neilson’s command, when they won the league by 21 points. With Edinburgh rivals Hibs and a rebuilding Rangers in the division back in 2014/15, it was a considerable achievement.
Walker feels this year might not reach the same levels of euphoria. “It would mean a lot if we get there. It probably won't be celebrated as much as the achievement was the last time,” he said.
“Rightly so, because we're the biggest club in the league and we are expected to win most weeks. We are getting through each of the games now and I'm buzzing to try and get another title. I want to contribute to getting the club back into the top flight.
“Last time, it was a much stronger league and there were a lot more games. We're trying to just win each game and sooner or later we hope to be back in the top league.”
There is also the Scottish Cup on the horizon to keep Hearts fully motivated even after the title is theirs. They reached last season’s delayed final in December and are due to face Brora Rangers in the second round next Tuesday.
“We have a good group of players and we want to go one step further this year in the Scottish Cup. It's a competition we want to go far in so we will be looking to do well,” said Walker.
Away from the field, the winger was recently profiled in a video as part of the club’s ‘Away Up In Gorgie’ series. He looked back on his career and life supporting Hearts.
“I thought I spoke quite well, to be honest,” he laughed. “I haven't taken much stick. I think that's the kind of stuff fans like to see. It's a bit of an insight into the background of the club so I was delighted to do it.”