KING of the Assists is a particularly apt title for one Hearts winger. Billy King created a total of 13 goals this season and added nine strikes of his own for good measure.
No other Tynecastle player opened up defences as often, although King is already seeking to improve on both fronts.
He has just signed a new two-year contract as Hearts prepare to step up to the Scottish Premiership after romping to the Championship title. King knows the level will be far more intense. He is determined to learn from the best and do even more damage next season – despite setting up more goals than any of his colleagues over the last ten months.
Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Marco Reus of Borussia Dortmund are just two of the European superstars he studies closely. Being able to create and score are vital functions for a modern attacker and King values both commodities hugely.
“As a wide player, I want to influence games. And games depend on assists and goals,” said King. “These are what decide results so that’s nice if I’m top of the assists list. Goals are good as well but next season I’ll be looking to improve on the goals tally.
“When I started to get a run in the team towards the end of last season, I started to get a few goals and a few assists. When I go into a game, that’s what I’m thinking. ‘How can I affect the game? Can I provide an assist or score myself?’ It’s nice to have a good amount of assists and goals this season and I want to kick on next year.
“I watch Eden Hazard or Marco Reus a lot. These are the top players in Europe, they provide assists and they score goals as well. You aren’t going to be a top player if you can’t finish. They are the top players who influence games in their leagues so they are two of the ones I look for mainly. There are also the obvious players like Messi and people like that. If you look at the stats Barcelona have, it shows you all the assists and goals their players get.”
The competitive nature of this season’s Hearts squad means no accolade goes without a challenge. Goals are the most valued prize, therefore King’s assists are vital.
“The goals chart has been really competitive,” he continued. “Osman [Sow], Genero [Zeefuik], [James] Keatings and [Jamie] Walker were all up there.
“Genero finished top with two goals against Rangers on the last day. I think Osman was a bit disappointed with that but that’s what the strikers live for, scoring goals. We always have wee competitions in training when we do shooting drills to see who can get the most goals. It’s always competitive. That’s been drilled into us.”
The desire to improve continues during the close season when King will volunteer for extra training. He is recovering from ankle surgery just now and intends to join in sessions Hearts coaching staff have planned for young players to work on strength and conditioning. “Yeah, I will do that,” he said. “They will be in Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. It is voluntary for all the first-team players, it’s just the younger players who have to come in. I will be in to do rehab anyway so I will join in the gym sessions as well.
“It will be through the whole summer but I will go on holiday and do it when I come back. I’m doing it through May, then I go on holiday and then when I come back I will be into pre-season and 100 per cent ready to go.”
It is sometimes easy to forget King is only 20, and as such susceptible to the confidence issues which affect every young footballer. He has been around the Tynecastle first-team squad since late 2012 and is only a dozen games off his 100th competitive appearance. As yet, he hasn’t managed to command a starting place week in and week out over a sustained period, which makes his King of the Assists title all the more impressive. He is willing to remain patient, conscious that time is on his side and he is learning from regular first-team outings. He already has 18 months experience of Scotland’s top flight having made his senior debut back in January 2013 under the former Hearts manager John McGlynn. The ensuing two-and-a-half years showed glimpses of a player with the potential to excite fans.
“The manager [Robbie Neilson] has had a lot of belief in me and that’s good to have,” he said. “I think I’ve had a decent season in terms of goals and assists but I’ve also got more to offer. Next season, I’ll be looking to develop even more and build on this year.
“I started playing regular first-team games at the end of last season, when we got relegated. I had a good run in the side and we won a few games but that was in the bottom six. I’m not going to lie, this season coming is going to be much more difficult. We aren’t going to dominate games as much or have as much of the ball. I think we have a good chance of finishing in the top six.”
With younger brother Adam still playing under-21 football at Swansea, King is confident he is in the best environment to progress. “Adam chose to go to Swansea and I speak to him all the time. He’s really enjoying it there and feels it’s improved him as a player because there’s good coaching. Up here, you’re playing first-team football whereas he’s just playing under-21s. There are pros and cons to both.
“The players in the 21s at my age [in England] want to go out [on loan] and get experience of first-team football. If I was down there, I’d want to go to another club to get first-team football, whereas I’m already getting it here.”
Even Neilson’s double and triple training sessions haven’t put him off despite initial doubts. “I think when it was first introduced there were a few players who might have been thinking that, but now everyone has bought into it,” said King. “Once you have done it for even a couple of months you are just used to it. We have done it for a whole season and I just think that’s the right way to do it.
“Previously we were off on a Wednesday and it split up the week. Most teams up here do that but down in the Premier I don’t think they do that and we have to learn from the best.”
Hearts players now have Mondays off.
“It shows we are going in the right direction. I don’t need to move. This is what the best teams in the world do. We are just learning from them and doing the same as they do and it has paid off this season with the amount of wins and the relentless form we have shown. Even in the latter part of the season we have still looked fit. We have not looked drained or tired.”