Despite being an Edinburgh native, new Hearts goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin has taken the long route back to his home city to ply his trade.
The 29-year-old penned a one-year deal at Tynecastle last month after leaving English Championship outfit Burton Albion in the summer.
It’s been far from the traditional return trip than many Scottish footballers take, however. Leaving the Capital for the Middle East as an infant before returning to Yorkshire, McLaughlin began his career with local side Harrogate Railway Athletic before moving to Harrogate Town and on to Bradford City then joining the Brewers.
Even his route into football was far from the norm, playing a variety of different sports before donning the gloves on his return to the UK.
“We left Edinburgh when I was not even a year old,” McLaughlin explained. “I was born here but we very quickly moved to the Middle East, lived there until I was about 11, then moved back to England
“It was dad’s work [that took us] over to Saudi Arabia. It was a different environment and I loved it. When we moved back, my auntie and uncle lived in Harrogate, a lovely place, so we came back to there.
“Growing up in Saudi, we played a lot more of the American sports. There wasn’t a lot of American football when you were a little kid but basketball, hockey as well. When we came back here we used to watch the Murrayfield Racers play ice hockey just round the corner from where we’ll be on Saturday [Hearts play Aberdeen in the first of three fixtures at BT Murrayfield due to the ongoing development work on the new stand at Tynecastle].”
Not that ice hockey was a regular pursuit in Saudi either. “It’s not easy to find over there and a little difficult to keep it cold!” he laughed. “It’s quite a good upbringing over there because you get a taste of everything. It’s something I’ve always been really glad about, that I wasn’t just drilled down one route my whole life.
“I see a lot of lads, all they have ever known is football and, for a lot of them, it doesn’t work out. I’ve been able to do everything. I’ve had a full school education, gone to university as well [graduating with a Sports Science and Performance Coaching degree]. I now I get the added bonus of still being a professional footballer so I’ve been very lucky.
“I only found out about the opportunity [to sign for Hearts] quite recently, just a couple of days before I came up. I had been speaking to a lot of clubs down south when I became aware that Hearts might be in the market for a goalkeeper. As soon as I knew that, it was one I didn’t want to pass up.”
While McLaughlin is now closer to much of his extended family, they perhaps weren’t initially enamoured with his choice of club. “The whole family, parents, uncles, aunties, the lot, are all from Edinburgh,” he said. “I’ve still got a lot of family who live here. The majority are from the Hibs side, I’ve got to say, so it was a little bit awkward, some of those conversations!
“Growing up, with the parents and uncles who were Hibs fans, that was who I would look out for but, having never lived here, having never been given the opportunity to go and support any Scottish side, I’m certainly less of a diehard Hibee, but definitely the family are more Hibs than Hearts.
“We’ve always come up and visited the family; mum and dad love coming up as often as they can. Since becoming a professional, it has become more difficult for me.
“I didn’t get many opportunities to go to games up here, just because we mostly visited in the summer. I’ve never experienced going to Easter Road or Tynecastle to even watch a game. It’s going to be interesting.”
Despite family allegiance, breaking the news to parents Paul and Margaret that he would be wearing maroon didn’t start any family arguments. “Like anything, they practically knew before I did that I was signing for Hearts,” he said. “That’s the way of the world with the internet these days.
“My parents were made up for me, but I wasn’t getting too many phone calls back from some of the uncles! They’re a bit more diehard. I think there will be a few family members in the away end, giving me some stick.”
McLaughlin has already had a taste of derby victory, making his first appearance in Hearts Under-20s’ 4-1 win over their neighbours at Oriam last week. “It was nice of them to chuck me into that one straight away – just to test me and make sure there was no old affiliation still there!” he joked. “I showed that I’d burnt all the bridges, I suppose. It was my first game since the [shoulder] injury in April, so I was glad to get it under my belt, feeling no ill effects.”
McLaughlin believes he’s made a step up in swapping Burton for Hearts. “Leaving Burton wasn’t due to the injury,” he said. “The gaffer, Nigel Clough, made it clear to me that that wasn’t the reason. I turned down a couple of contracts from Burton throughout the year. It’s a club that has risen very quickly and, unfortunately, that means they are still held back in terms of budgets, in terms of how long they feel they can survive at that level. There is a bit of a resistance there to really push on and progress.
“At that stage of my career, playing at that level, there were a lot of opportunities out there. With my experience, a lot of clubs were willing to give me a chance. There were a whole lot of reasons which meant that, one way or another, we were going to part ways. And I think they knew that as well. In their position, the route they had gone down, a loan signing helps them with the budget and they don’t have to commit long term beyond this season.
“With a lot of clubs now, that is the way of the world, especially with goalkeepers, because it means they can just do short-term loan deals. So it was a natural end there. But it was a fantastic three years. I got to work with three brilliant managers. I learned so much from each one. I had three fantastic seasons and now it’s great to have the chance of another important chapter.
“Hearts are certainly a bigger club, a club that people know around the world because it’s got the history. Burton’s a very young club. It’s only been around since 1950. It’s only been in the Football League for ten years or so, so it’s rise has been incredibly quick. That means the support is much smaller and the finances are much smaller.
“It’s a family club run by a few individuals. It’s at its absolute peak right now, which is fantastic. A club like Hearts that is so well established, I certainly see as a step-up, and moving into a top-flight league.”
Now comes the main task of establishing himself as Hearts’ first-choice ahead of incumbent Jack Hamilton. “As a goalkeeper, it’s the toughest part of the business,” McLaughlin admitted. “We have to work so closely together but only one person can wear the shirt.
“Jack has been doing well, he has stepped in and done well for a young goalkeeper. That’s the difficulty and challenge ahead of myself now. In the last five or six years, I’ve been the number one playing a lot of football every season and that’s my intention again but it’s certainly not given that the shirt is going to be yours. You have to come in and fight and prove you’re the best man for the job, that’s the task for me.”
As well as providing competition, McLaughlin is also looking to guide Hamilton if he can. “That’s something I would want to do if that’s what he needed,” he confirmed. “Although he’s a young goalkeeper, he certainly does not give off any aura of being inexperienced. He is already showing real maturity at a high level. When you get to my age and have played a lot of games, along with Gal [Paul Gallacher] the goalie coach, there is a good foundation for the other ones to learn.”
If picked ahead of Hamilton, the prospect of making his debut at BT Murrayfield on Saturday is an intriguing one. “We don’t know what’s going to happen but one way or the other it’s going to be a fantastic occasion to be involved in,” he said. “It’s going to feel a lot more like a cup game than a league fixture with the surroundings and them bringing a lot of fans.
“Hopefully we’ll bring a big following as well. It will be a different sort of atmosphere but it’s one I’ve dealt with before in high-profile cup games. I’ve played a few times at Wembley in front of big crowds and hopefully that will stand me in good stead. Aberdeen have had a fantastic start, four wins from four but this is probably their first real test of the season. If it makes it feel more like a cup match and one-off game where both teams go for it, hopefully that will suit.
“I’ve never been to Murrayfield. We are training there on Friday, which will be our first taste of it, a chance to get a feel of things. Then straight into Saturday obviously. It’s nice sometimes because you don’t have any expectations built up. In your head, you can go into it like everyone else.
“As long as the ball is the right shapem, I’m sure we will be alright!”
• Jon McLaughlin was speaking at the launch of One in a Million supporter benefit scheme. In return for a donation of £100 (or £50 for current Foundation of Hearts pledgers with a minimum of 250 maroon points or fans who have bought the Season Ticket Guarantee and Price Freeze option), supporters can enjoy great discounts on some very popular club and partner offerings (includes 25% off all food in Vittoria Group). Full details and sign up info at: www.heartsfc.co.uk/pages/oneinamillion