The countdown to the end of Brad McKay’s Hearts career is underway and the player is already feeling emotional.
He will join St Johnstone this summer and wants a league winner’s medal round his neck as a perfect farewell to the club he has supported since childhood. More than anything, he wants his late dad Scott to look down with pride at what he has achieved at Tynecastle.
I know if he was here he would be so proud of me and what I’ve achievedBrad McKay
Three years ago this month, before he had made a senior Hearts appearance, McKay’s father died. The void in his life has been hard to bear as he fulfilled a childhood ambition by pulling on a maroon first-team jersey. Leaving Tynecastle as a league winner and helping Hearts back into the Scottish Premiership is something he will cherish, as would his dad and a family full of Jambos.
“Since I was a wee boy, I had Hearts tops pinned all over my wall. My door had the Hearts badge on it. I used to run about playing with Hearts strips on,” explained McKay, speaking exclusively to the Evening News.
“The five years I’ve been here have flown by. People say you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. I wouldn’t like to feel that I didn’t make the most of my time at Hearts come this summer. I want to leave with a league winner’s medal. I know I’ve played my part and I’ve still got a part to play until the end.
“Some players go through their career without a medal of any kind. To do it with Hearts, the team I’ve supported since I was a wee boy, is something I’d be very proud of.
"I know if my dad was here, he’d be so proud of me. That’s the one thing I think about every time I play for Hearts. My dad never saw me play for the senior team. He passed away three years ago come the end of this month. I know if he was here he would be so proud of me and what I’ve achieved.”
The decision to sign a pre-contract agreement at McDiarmid Park was done with one thing in mind – career progression. McKay has played 11 times for Hearts this season. He knows he will remain a bit-part player until the campaign ends. He played the last two minutes as a substitute at Queen of the South last week and will be on the bench again tomorrow against Cowdenbeath. It simply isn’t enough for a 21-year-old.
McKay revealed details of his conversation with Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson which led to his decision to move on. “I went in to speak to the manager myself as it got near Christmas because I needed to know what was happening. I asked him a simple question: ‘What are your plans for next year?’ I could tell he didn’t want to answer because he wanted to keep me here. I said there will be over 1000 guys out of contract in the summer, but less than half that in January. I wanted to know whether I’d be offered the chance to be in the same position – a bit-part player, on the bench and waiting for a suspension or injury.
“There’s only so much progress a player can make in training. I’ve learned tons since Robbie and the coaching staff have come in but there comes a stage where you need to put that into your play. I’ve just not had enough chances to do that this season.
“What I said to Robbie was: ‘If I’m going to be offered a chance to stay and be in the same boat next year, then I’d rather go somewhere where I won’t be a bit-part player.’ I want more game time so I can put all this training I’ve been doing into practice in matches. That’s the next stage of my progression. I really, really, need to play more games at my age. I need to nail down a place in a team.
“Robbie said he didn’t know about budgets and things so I asked for one answer to one question. I said: ‘I know you want to keep me, but what will you say to me at the end of the season?’ He took a long time to answer. It was almost like he didn’t want to tell me because he’s honest. The answer was: ‘I’d tell you that you need to play games. I don’t want to stand in your way.’
“I told him it was difficult for me. I said: ‘I really want to be part of this but it’s about balancing my future as well.’ I didn’t want to wait till the end of the season then start looking for a club with so many other players. I’ve heard a lot of good things about St Johnstone and I’m delighted I’ve got something sorted there. It’s worked out perfectly. I didn’t have anything sorted when I spoke to Robbie but I had a meeting with Tommy Wright [St Johnstone manager] and I liked everything he said and what he stands for.”
McKay was resigned to ending his Hearts career at that point but the pre-contract agreement – his two-year contract in Perth starts in July – offered the best of both worlds. McKay talks of leaving his “comfort zone” out of necessity. But first, he has a burning desire to win the league and complete an ideal goodbye to the club he loves.
“Sometimes I blind myself by being a Hearts fan. I say I want to stay here and do this and that. For the last three years here I’ve played the whole season knowing my contract was expiring. This is the first year I thought I’d be better off not signing a one-year contract with Hearts if I was offered it.
“If you never leave your comfort zone, I don’t think you progress. This is my comfort zone. I don’t stay far from here [Riccarton], I’m a massive Hearts fan, I know all the boys here. Sometimes it takes for you to leave your comfort zone a bit and start afresh. I think I’ll progress by doing it. I’ve made over 50 appearances here but, as a Hearts fan, I want to leave on a high. It’s more than 30 years since Hearts last won a league.
“I didn’t want to leave Hearts being a player who got them relegated. To be part of the team that brings them back up is massive for me. I’m not happy playing ten or 15 minutes here and there but I want to be part of it through to the end.”
The notion of just coasting through in auto-cruise has no place in the central defender’s mind. He is determined to glean every ounce of knowledge he possibly can from the Hearts coaches. Hard work seems to part of his DNA and progress is what forever drives him on. “It’s easier for me to get my head down now, knowing I’ve got my future sorted,” he admitted. “I’ve asked Tommy Wright what he thinks I can work on and I’ve asked Robbie Neilson as well. That gives me things to focus on. A player who has nothing to work towards is in a hellish place. [Hearts coaches] Stevie Crawford and Jack Ross have both said to me to go away and improve on one wee thing that they’ve noticed in an under-20 game or a first-team game. When you do that, you feel you’ve succeeded.”
Success is the one thing Brad McKay craves in football. He is on the cusp of it with Hearts right now as the Edinburgh club sit 20 points clear atop the Scottish Championship. The perfect goodbye awaits.