Their own club’s Scottish Cup quarter-final takes place on Monday evening at Firhill, but the tie between Dundee United and Inverness at Tannadice offers a sizeable Hearts-fest in the meantime.
United manager Robbie Neilson, goalkeeping coach Neil Alexander, plus players Osman Sow and Morgaro Gomis have strong history in Gorgie. The man in charge of Inverness, John Robertson, also knows a thing or two about Hearts. As do players Brad McKay, Mark Ridgers, Kevin McHattie and Anthony McDonald.
Some even harbour grievances lingering from their time in maroon. Caledonian Thistle lost 1-0 at United in the league on Tuesday night. For McKay, Sunday is another chance to prove a point to Neilson – the manager who decided the defender did not merit a regular place in his Championship-winning Hearts team four seasons ago.
“I left Hearts when Robbie was there. I had a conversation with him at Christmas that season when I was coming out of contract,” McKay told the Evening News. “I asked him what his plans were and he was honest enough with me. He said I needed to go and play games. I probably could have held on for another year at Hearts and been a bit-part player. I think he was expecting [Danny] Wilson and [Alim] Ozturk to stay a bit longer, but Wilson ended up leaving.
“I still have a point to prove to Robbie in my mind. When you play against your old manager, you always want to prove to him that he was right to play you when he did but wrong when he didn’t. There’s always a wee bit of something there for me when I play against any manager I’ve had before.”
Now a first-pick in the Highlands – he has played every minute when available under Robertson – it would not surprise the 25-year-old to see a few Hearts supporters in the Tannadice crowd this weekend.
“It’s a lovely place to go and watch football and there is a decent atmosphere. I don’t see why not. Hearts fans might take a wee interest in the game and travel up. Hopefully that makes it an even better atmosphere for us.”
The arrival of one well-kent face from his time in Edinburgh has helped McKay feel more settled up north. “It’s difficult being up here away from your family. I struggled a bit last year and told the manager I didn’t know if I could do it again this year. Kev coming in was massive for me because we’re good friends.”
Callum Paterson, now an English Premier League player at Cardiff City, completes a triumvirate of friends from the Riccarton youth academy who remain in daily contact. “Hopefully the club can muster up a couple of mill for Callum’s wages and we can get him up here,” laughed McKay.
Ridgers is excelling in goal, while 17-year-old McDonald is enjoying a loan spell with Inverness and returns to parent club Hearts this summer.
“He’s a nice, tidy football player. He’s actually living with Kev. I told him he’d be better staying with me if he wanted looking after properly,” joked McKay. “I knew he would be a good fit from one of his his first games away at Ayr. It was a terrible pitch, a hellish wind and he was twisting and turning in the mud. I was like: ‘This wee guy’s good.’ We’re glad to have him.”
The preened Tannadice pitch ensures no mud for McDonald or anyone else to get stuck in. It’s all about reaching the last four of a cup tournament Inverness won four years ago under John Hughes. “Every morning, we walk into the stadium past murals on the wall of the cup success. You see pictures of Yogi holding the cup after winning it,” said McKay.
“The manager tells us all the time that they won it before so why can’t we? It would be unbelievable for us to get to the semis. A big club awaits us on the other side if we can get through.
“It would make the club a lot of money and get us a trip to Hampden. I’ve only been to Hampden once and that was for the League Cup final with Hearts in 2013. I was on the bench but didn’t play. Some players never get the chance to play there so who knows? This might be the only chance I get so I need to make the most of it.”
McKay was cruelly denied the chance to make the most of it in the previous round. His goal had Inverness 2-1 up and heading for the quarters against local rivals Ross County in Dingwall. Joshua Mullin’s 90th-minute equaliser forced a replay, which Caledonian Thistle won on penalties.
“As the clock ticked on, I was thinking: ‘This could be the one. I could be the hero here.’ We have a knack of losing late goals but we got there in the end,” said McKay.
“We feel we can do something against United. When I was at Hearts, I remember Robbie always saying: ‘Go and start well, then finish them off.’ United haven’t managed to do that to us this season. Ridgers hardly had a save to make in midweek. United have good players, like Pavol Safranko and Nicky Clark. We always enjoy playing at Tannadice and the boys walked away on Tuesday night more than confident that we can take care of them on Sunday.”
For those who cannot stomach a weekend without a maroon tint, Tayside is most definitely the place to be.