The return of Robbie Neilson to Hearts could be the boost Jamie Walker needs to kick-start his career.
That is according to the man who gave him his professional debut as a loanee at Raith Rovers and then, having played that vital role in his early development, fast-tracked him into the Hearts first team when they both found themselves back at Gorgie preparing for the start of the 2012-13 season.
John McGlynn had long recognised the natural talent of Jamie Walker, having given him his breakthrough at Stark’s Park and then, when he took over from Paulo Sergio at Hearts, he stayed true to the blossoming youngster, elevating him into the first team squad.
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Eight years ago today, he handed him his first appearance for the capital side and while it wasn’t notable in terms of scoreline from his point of view – the Jambos lost 1-0 to Falkirk in a pre-season friendly – it kicked off the then 19-year-old’s Tynecastle career. Since then he has gone on to amass over 200 competitive appearances during two stints at the Gorgie side, with a spell at Wigan in between.
Injury has contributed to him struggling to reassert himself since returning there last summer, though, and McGlynn, who is back at Raith, has warned the man he describes as a “matchwinner” that he now needs to kick on or risk being left to rue unfulfilled potential.
“There are not many players who can change games the way Jamie can. On his day, he is a matchwinner,” said McGlynn. “There is that wee drop of the shoulder, a step-over or turn of pace and he has a finish in him and can score goals so while there are guys who will give you six out of ten all the time, Jamie is capable of nine and a half. He can win a game on his own and that is the difference between Jamie and your bang average players.
“On his day he is unplayable and we could see that from an early age. He came on loan to Raith while he was still part of the under-19s and he was the difference in us winning games. He was different class.
“He then had a great time back at Hearts and earned his move. That move maybe didn’t work out long term but he came back and he might have expected things to go a bit better for him and the club.”
Instead there was the knee injury and the leg break and by the time the man, who can play out wide or in a central role, returned to the fold, the team were toiling to avoid relegation and he and others were thrown back in before they were match fit as they were charged with reversing the decline. Worse still, under Daniel Stendel, he had young up and comers like Lewis Moore and Euan Henderson ahead of him in the pecking order.
Those were trying circumstances but his old boss is backing him to pick himself back up and remind Scottish football of the attributes that saw him burn so brightly in those early days and earned him a move to England and the interest of national coaches.
“Now he has to put that aside and push on. There is no doubt that he has still got plenty of time to kick on and have a really good career but he does need to kick on again now and prove again to everyone that he still has that magic.”
Ideally, Hearts would love an older and wiser version of the player who, early in his career took responsibility and stepped up when administration left them fighting a fierce, albeit losing battle against relegation; the Jamie Walker who, at times, ran rampant as the team proceeded to bounce straight back up the following year and who, with confidence high, then slammed home 15 goals and dazzled in the 2016/17 season.
He has been working to deliver, putting in the grind on days off towards the end of the old campaign and grafting to ensure he can hit the ground running when the squad eventually returns under Neilson, who figured out how to get the best out of him when they last worked together.
“He is quite a quiet boy but within him there is a deep-lying confidence in his own ability,” says McGlynn. “Like everyone, he likes pats on the back. He is a lad who likes an arm round the shoulder and you sometimes need a bit of kidology and man-management skills to get him to perform but if you do that you get something special out of him.
“There is a trick to it and he just needs somebody to believe in him and he responds to that better than to other things.
“He will be looking forward to working with Robbie, who knows what he has got and what he is capable of and how to get that out of him. It is a match made in heaven.”
Legalities continuing, Hearts are still unsure what league they will be in next term but if, as it looks just now, they have to contest the Championship, McGlynn believes it will benefit Walker and leave several defenders at his mercy.
“Hearts are going to have a lot of the ball in the Championship and they will be able to do a lot of attacking and that is going to suit Jamie perfectly so, yeah, it could be one step back, two step forwards. I would expect him to kick on and grow in confidence and remind us all just how good he can be. I just hope he doesn’t turn it on when he is playing us!”