Jamie Walker is Hearts’ designated penalty taker after scoring three out of three so far this season. The winger welcomes the pressure and will step up again tomorrow if given the opportunity to help his club reach the top of the Ladbrokes Premiership.
That’s the incentive for Walker and his colleagues heading to McDiarmid Park. Three points will take them above league leaders Celtic, who don’t play Inverness until Sunday afternoon.
Walker converted from the spot in last week’s 3-1 win over Hamilton as Hearts took nine points from the last nine available. He has replaced Prince Buaben as the chosen penalty taker at Tynecastle and is thriving on the responsibility.
He stroked home a penalty against Celtic in the season’s opening league fixture but then received a two-game league ban for diving. He missed the subsequent matches against Aberdeen and Inverness CT, though did tuck away another penalty in Hearts’ 3-2 defeat to Saturday’s opponents St Johnstone in the BetFred Cup. Since returning, he has again looked a dynamic and pivotal figure for the Edinburgh club.
“I’m happy to have that pressure. As a player, if you can hit ten or 12 goals in a season and then get five or six penalties, it can take your tally up by a few. I’m delighted to be on the penalties and hopefully I can keep scoring,” said Walker in an exclusive Evening News interview.
“Over the course of the last couple of seasons, since Robbie Neilson has been in charge here, we’ve obviously missed a few penalties. I don’t know if that’s because we’ve not had a set guy taking them or what, but I’m happy to be taking them now and I want to continue sticking them away.
“A good result at McDiarmid Park will put us top of the league. It’s a hard place to go and get a result. We haven’t won a league game up there in six years or something, so we’ll go up there to try and put that right. We have spoken about going top. When these chances come, you have to take them. There’s no point saying we aren’t looking to go top. The opportunity is there. We need to go to McDiarmid and get three points, and then we’ll be top of the table until Celtic play Inverness.”
Sam Nicholson made a key contribution to last week’s victory over Hamilton despite being demoted to the bench in place of Walker. He entered the fray on 61 minutes with Hearts 1-0 down and inspired a thrilling comeback. Creating two goals and scoring the third means he is in serious contention for a starting place tomorrow.
“It just shows the quality we have in the squad now,” said Walker on Nicholson’s impact on proceedings. “Sam came on and changed the game. Big Bjorn [Johnsen] and Robbie [Muirhead] made a difference as well. You saw the likes of Prince [Buaben] and Alim [Ozturk] not even getting on the pitch. They’re good players so we know we need to keep pushing forward as a squad.”
Reaching the Premiership summit would be a giant leap forward, even if it is only for 24 hours. Hearts have recovered from a supposedly poor start because many people underestimated them
“Just because we lost two games, people were obviously looking at results and not performances. As everyone has seen over the last few weeks, we have a great squad. We’ve changed things a bit and we’re still picking up results. That proves the ability we have.
“It just shows what football is like. One week you can be on top of the world, the next you can be really low. I think we gave Celtic a good game at the start of the season and might have got a point that day.
“We went to St Johnstone in the League Cup and were 2-1 up until the last 15 minutes, then lost 3-2. We knew we weren’t far away. In the last few weeks, we’ve picked up nine points and we want to make it 12 tomorrow.
“If we win, Celtic still have a game in hand. We’ve all seen that they have a really strong squad. We just have to concentrate on ourselves, keep winning games and you never know where it might take us.”