STANDING in Easter Road’s South Stand, heart pounding, adrenalin coursing through the veins, engulfed by a cacophony of noise and loving every minute of it – Brad McKay has been there many times.
The Hearts defender is one of a select few to graduate from terracing to pitch having supported his club since childhood. The Edinburgh derby is one he has experienced from both sides of the fence, as fan and as player, and he knows better than anyone the emotions of the supporters heading to Leith tonight.
For every Hearts fan wracked with nerves ahead of a New Year clash for which Hibs are strong favourites, McKay will feel just as edgy. He knows the stakes. Mates on both sides of the Capital divide have spent the best part of a week winding him up, so there is no chance of him not being attuned to the occasion.
To be fair, there was little chance of that anyway. McKay joined Hearts from Edinburgh City in 2010 aged 17, but for years beforehand had followed the Tynecastle club with the same intense passion he now brings on to the field of play. He can recall the exhilaration of beating Hibs both as a player and fan, although he has yet to lose a derby as a player – a record he is fiercely keen to protect this evening.
“It’s an exciting time going to Easter Road to watch Hearts,” he explained, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “All the boys get together and head down there. I’ve been there with my family, I’ve been with my mates and I know what it’s like.
“It’s nerve-wracking, but it’s exciting at the same time. There’s no better feeling than going away from Easter Road with a win.
“It may seem silly, but, when you’re sitting in the stand, you’re like: ‘Aaargh, you should’ve done this’ or ‘you should’ve done that’. When I get the chance to get on that pitch and actually do something, it feels good. When it goes well, it’s even better. I’ve got a chance to do something about it now. To me, this is massive. It means just as much to me as it does to the fans because you want to win every game against Hibs. Everybody on both sides knows what it means.
“You get stick before the game, but you can’t really say too much to your mates. People are saying, ‘we’re going to hammer you’ and ‘we’re going to do this and that’. It’s always the same leading up to a derby. Come the end of the game, whichever team loses is always quiet. They never say much after it and they’re always hiding.
“You always need to keep your emotions in check, not just in the derbies. Every time I play for Hearts, it’s a massive moment for me. Obviously, you get frustrated as a player. As a supporter of the club, you get even more frustrated when things aren’t going your way, but you need to control your emotions and focus on the game.”
McKay’s return to Hearts’ starting line-up has been particularly timely ahead of tonight’s meeting with Hibs. The 20-year-old was dropped by manager Gary Locke in October after suffering a dip in form and only regained his place 12 days ago at Celtic Park. His reinstatement helped the defence take on a more rigid look against Celtic and St Mirren, although the Boxing Day capitulation against Kilmarnock was unquestionably a seasonal low point.
McKay explained the resilience he had to find to convince Locke he merited another chance in the centre of defence after being demoted to the substitutes’ bench.
“I’m delighted to be back in,” he continued.
“After a wee bad run of form, I found myself out of the team. I worked my socks off to get back in.
“It’s always difficult when you’re doing well and not getting rewarded for your hard work, but that’s the real test of character for a footballer. It’s not when you get dropped from the team, it’s when you’re trying hard to get back in. That’s the biggest test and thankfully I’ve stood up to it.”
Beating Hibs is something Hearts have proven rather adept at so far this season, recording 1-0 wins in both derbies to date. Callum Paterson’s goal won the first league meeting at Tynecastle in August, while Ryan Stevenson’s winner secured victory in October’s League Cup quarter-final at Easter Road.
This time, Locke and his players have the added motivation of knowing they will break through the zero points barrier with three points tonight. Erasing the 15-point deficit imposed on them for entering administration is seen a good psychological achievement.
“We’ve got massive motivation to get through the zero mark.
“We’ve targeted that for a while and we feel we should’ve been there a bit sooner,” said McKay, while recognising that Terry Butcher’s influence on Hibs means they are now a more robust unit than under previous manager Pat Fenlon.
“Terry did well at Inverness and instilled a good attitude there. They’ve continued to do well,” noted McKay. “Hibs have picked up and gone on a wee run recently. I don’t think it will be much different to what we should expect from Hibs in a derby. It will be a battle and you’ve got to win individual battles before you win the match. He will instil that at Hibs.”
Nonetheless, there is no chance of McKay or any Hearts player feeling overawed. “It’s the same players at Hibs. I don’t know whether you can blame that on the old manager or not, whether they were a soft touch or not, but it’s the same squad.
“It might just be a mental thing, it might be a manager, but it’s the same players in the team. We’ve dealt with all those players before, so we’ll just deal with them again.”