KEVIN McHATTIE is a truly priceless commodity at Riccarton right now. He is Hearts’ only specialist left-back and is nursing a hamstring complaint.
Thus, he is being wrapped in cotton wool by manager Gary Locke and the club’s medical staff. The pressure to stay fit for matches is unavoidable in a paper-thin squad.
The injury appears to have subsided for the moment due to rest, so McHattie is available for tomorrow’s trip to Perth to face St Johnstone.
However, it may need managed on a week-to-week basis as the season progresses. McHattie hobbled out of Tynecastle after last week’s defeat by Motherwell with the hamstring problem having forced his substitution during the second half. A season of hard toil on increasingly heavy winter pitches is, naturally, beginning to take its toll.
The 20-year-old is not alone in feeling the strain.
Jason Holt and Jamie Walker, both first-team regulars and the same age as McHattie, have sustained broken metatarsals. The difficulty for so many Hearts youngsters is they know their manager has no-one to replace them with. Locke has been unable to name a full quota of seven substitutes due to lack of numbers in some recent matches. He can’t sign anyone as his club are in administration and have a registration embargo, therefore no-one can afford to be absent.
Injuries are simply not an option for McHattie and his team-mates. “I’ve had a fitness test in the morning and the gaffer has looked at me and said I’m fine to play,” explained McHattie. “That’s understandable because it’s hard for the manager to pick a team with lots of injuries and a few illnesses as well.
“Even when you feel a wee niggle, the gaffer is encouraging you to give it a few days’ rest to let it settle. He doesn’t want to be faced with injuries. I’ve just got to try and keep myself injury-free from now on.
“This is a hard league to come in to. Every game is a battle. Our bodies are more than capable but you do pick up a few injuries now and then. The gaffer does what he can under the circumstances. He’s been there for a long time and he knows all the young players. We’ve all known him coming through the ranks so it’s good for us.
“I think my injury was down to overplaying. Billy Brown [assistant manager] has told me I need to watch myself because I stay behind after training to practise quite often. I need to watch what I’m doing.
“The physios do their best to keep us going and we have Dave [Sykes], our sports scientist, to help the gaffer. If we’re feeling our legs, he’ll just give us a light training session. We do a thing in the morning where we all write down scores to show how we’re feeling and that helps him to choose the training session.”
McHattie was rested for most of last week before the Motherwell match and has been treated similarly this week to ready him for facing St Johnstone. “It’s feeling good, I trained yesterday and the hamstring felt okay so I’m looking forward to tomorrow.
“I was tight in the first half against Motherwell and when I went in at half-time it seized up with the sitting about. I tried to run it off but it didn’t happen so the gaffer took me off as a precaution. I hadn’t trained all week before the game, I only managed to train on the Friday. I’ve been rested since Saturday as well. Yesterday was the first time I’d trained this week. It feels perfect so far.”
Tomorrow’s game sees McHattie facing a former team-mate who is in a rich vein of form. Stevie May is wreaking havoc all across the country at the moment with 16 goals in 27 appearances for St Johnstone. He and McHattie played together on loan at Alloa during season 2011/12.
“Stevie’s a good guy who is doing really well just now so I’m pleased for him,” said McHattie. “We’ll try to keep him quiet tomorrow but that won’t be easy.
“He’s a down-to-earth guy who just loves his football. He gets a bit of stick for his hair but he doesn’t care one bit, certainly not when he’s ramming the ball in the net.”
It is fair to say McHattie’s own career has also progressed since he was dispatched to Clackmannanshire to gain first-team experience. He has gone from under-20 prodigy to first-team mainstay, almost in the blink of an eye. Danny Grainger’s departure at the end of last season gave him the chance he had waited for.
“When I came to Hearts at first I was only 17. There were three or four left-backs in front of me,” he recalled. “I was just looking to the first team as a dream but it’s happened for me. I’m surprised it’s come so quickly but that’s down to the club’s circumstances. It’s a shame on the club but for me it’s a very good thing.
“Lee Wallace was the first-choice left-back when I arrived and Ruben Palazuelos was there as well. Then Danny Grainger came along. There were also players coming through who were older than me playing left-back. There was Colin Hamilton, Dale O’Hara, Murray Christie and Mikey Deland. I’ve seen off quite a few but I need to stay focused on my game and keep improving.”
Recent weeks have taught him that, for now, what he needs more than anything is to stay fit.