Robbie Neilson spent years trying to sign Barrie McKay as Hearts manager reveals why deal could not be done previously

Umpteen attempts to sign Barrie McKay finally bore fruit for Robbie Neilson on Tuesday afternoon. The Hearts manager is convinced the wait was worthwhile.

Wednesday, 8th September 2021, 2:43 pm
Updated Wednesday, 8th September 2021, 2:49 pm
Hearts manager Robbie Neilson is preparing his team to face Hibs.

McKay’s name featured prominently on Neilson’s recruitment lists throughout periods in charge of MK Dons, Dundee United and Hearts. Capturing the winger’s signature brings a sense of gratification even if he isn’t quite match-fit just now.

At 26 and a Scotland internationalist, McKay harbours the potential to become a major asset at Tynecastle Park after agreeing a two-year contract. Theoretically, the best years of the player’s career should be still to come after spells with Rangers, Nottingham Forest and Swansea City, plus several loans.

“I know Barrie well from his time at Rangers but also down south. I watched him a lot and tried to get him a few times when I was down south – and again when I came back up to Scotland. I’m just really pleased to get it done,” Neilson told the Evening News.

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“We tried to get him in January and then we tried to get him at the start of the summer. He was still a Swansea player in January and we thought we could have got him up but we couldn’t do the deal.

“There was an option in his contract that Swansea could have taken him back again and loaned him out somewhere else. We didn’t trigger it but we enquired about it.

Game-changer

“Then he was leaving Swansea back in June and we tried again, so we’ve been working away on this for quite a while now. A number of other teams were interested in Barrie right through the window so we are delighted to get him.

“I see him as a game-changer. He’s got that pace and direct approach, he’s got that moment in him that can win you a game. It’s great for us to get a player like that on board.”

One of those other suitors was Hibs, who visit Tynecastle this weekend for a top-of-the-table Premiership derby. Both Edinburgh clubs recognised the attraction of a free agent wide player with experience of Scotland’s top flight.

An extra bonus for Hearts was McKay’s relative youth. “One of our priorities was bringing the average age of the squad down and we’ve managed to get a player at 26, which is great,” added Neilson. “Barrie is an asset who still has his best years ahead of him. He’s still got blistering pace so it’s an exciting signing for us.”

Hearts’ patience ensured they got one of their primary targets rather than take a stop-gap signing to fill an attacking void. McKay left Swansea in June when his contract expired and spent the summer weighing up a number of options in both England and Scotland.

The transfer window closed last week with Neilson and Joe Savage, Hearts’ sporting director, content to hold their nerve. Knowing McKay was still without a club, they waited in hope that he would eventually decide his future lay in Edinburgh.

“We made a decision to keep an eye on things after the window closed,” admitted Neilson. “We tried to get Barrie before the window shut. Anybody else who was put to us wasn’t the one we wanted to bring in. It would have been a bit short-term so we decided to wait.

“We knew if we got Barrie we would be absolutely delighted but if we didn’t then we would wait until the January window.”

Full focus at Riccarton now turns to Hibs. Coaching staff believe they are armed with plenty options in all positions for the remainder of the campaign after eight summer signings – McKay, Cameron Devlin, Taylor Moore, Ben Woodburn, Beni Baningime, Alex Cochrane, Josh Ginnelly and Ross Stewart.

Not enough quality last year

The project is akin to a jigsaw with constantly-changing shapes but Neilson is happy with what has been built so far.

“We wanted quality in all positions and we wanted options as well. I think we’ve got that at the moment,” he said. “Everyone is fit at the moment, except Cammy Logan who is in full training and on his way back now. That gives you a lot of options.

“If we have a few injuries, it’s important we have that quality available to bring in. We had a big squad when we came in last year but it was a squad with a number of players not at the quality we needed to get to where we want to go.

“We have managed to move them out. Last season was all about winning the Championship so you are bringing players in who can get you over the line. Now it’s about building for the future and getting players who are assets for the team.

“We have done that but it’s still early days and we aren’t getting carried away. We’ve got a tough game at the weekend and it’s an opportunity for us to show where we are now.”

Adrenaline doesn’t pump much harder than before an Edinburgh derby when both teams are joint-top of the league. It is precisely the kind of fixture Neilson returned to Hearts from Dundee United last summer to take part in.

“That’s right, 100 per cent,” he admitted. “It was always a talking point last season when we were in the Championship going to grounds that maybe aren’t the most appealing to play at.

“No fans were there so we we had to use the motivation of winning those games to get promoted. The opportunity to be back in the top league playing in front of big crowds in huge games was the motivation right through last season.”

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