On-song Jamie Walker believes fatherhood has helped him come of age as a footballer.
The 21-year-old and his partner Courtney welcomed their baby son, Jace, into the world in December. The intervening four months have been an eye-opener for the Hearts attacker, but he believes that becoming a family man at such a young age has helped take his game to new heights.
“It’s matured me a lot,” Walker told the Evening News. “It keeps me busy. I think to myself ‘what did I do with all my time before I became a dad?’ I’m always on my toes now, whereas before I was probably just sitting about the house a lot. I’ve got an extra focus because I know I’ve got to provide for the wee man.
“If I don’t do well, you never know what could happen, so it’s important that I do my best for my family. It was tough going at the start, getting up during the night and all that, but it’s all worth it. He’s a good sleeper now, he’s going all through the night. My missus is good at getting up when he does wake up.”
The arrival of baby Jace, who made it on to the pitch for the Championship title-winning celebrations after last month’s match against Queen of the South, has contributed to good times on and off the pitch for the youngest father in the Hearts team. “There are only a few other dads in the team at the moment because we’ve got a fairly young squad,” said Walker. “The others who have kids are a bit older so it’s more expected for them than it is for me, but I love it – I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Walker linked with a move to Spanish outfit Real Betis in January, has been touted as a contender for Hearts’ player of the year this season after overcoming a disrupted start to the campaign to establish himself as one his team’s key men in their march towards the title. The boyhood Hearts fan has scored a total of 16 goals in his three seasons in the first-team, with eight of them coming since the turn of the year. “I think I’ve come a very long way this season,” said Walker, who has played as both a winger and a No.10 this season. “I’ve been putting in good performances and scored a few goals. I think since Christmas I’ve been in the best form of my career. Since I scored that goal against Hibs at New Year I’ve really kicked on.
“I was suspended at the start of the season and Sam [Nicholson] and Billy [King] were in there and doing well so I had to wait for my opportunity but when it came, I took it. The backroom staff have kept me going. When I slackened off a bit they took me into the office and told me to keep going. They believe I’m a good player and if they can keep pushing me, hopefully I can keep doing well.
“It’s always nice to hear speculation linking you with other clubs or people acknowledging your individual performances, but it’s been a real team effort and everyone’s done well, so we’ll just need to wait and see who gets player of the year.”
Until the past week or so, Walker was also in the running to finish as the Championship’s top scorer. A run of eight goals in 11 matches took him to 11 league goals for the season last month. At that point, he was within two of Jason Cummings, although the Hibs forward has since pulled away on 15. Walker is now intent on outscoring James Keatings, his close friend and team-mate, who is also on 11. “Keats scored a few at the start of the season but I said I’d catch him,” explained Walker. “I managed to do it and then I overtook him in the first half at Falkirk [last month], but he came on and scored in the second half and we’ve both been stuck on 11 ever since.
“I was within two of Cummings for a while, but in the last few weeks he’s scored a few and pulled away again. It was something I was keeping an eye on. When you look at the top scorers, it’s all strikers and I’m the only midfielder on the list, so I’m proud of that. To get 11 from midfield, I’m delighted with that.”
Walker will be eager to add to his tally tomorrow at home to Raith Rovers, the club that gave him his first experience of first-team football. Three years ago, then 18, Walker enjoyed a loan spell with a Rovers side managed by John McGlynn, who would go on to give him his Hearts debut when he became manager at Tynecastle the following season.
“I was just young and trying to learn a bit more about the game when I was there,” he said. “I played 20-odd games there and enjoyed it. It was an important time in my development. I could have stayed at Hearts and played for the Under-19s, but it was good for me to go out and play in a tough league. It was tough but it stood me in good stead for this season because I knew what the league was like. I think I’ve come a long way since then.”