Story behind Hearts' secret move for Gary Mackay-Steven and why it had to stay private

Winger Gary Mackay-Steven is Hearts' latest signing.Winger Gary Mackay-Steven is Hearts' latest signing.
Winger Gary Mackay-Steven is Hearts' latest signing.
Hearts now count five senior wingers in their first-team squad after a marquee January signing.

Gary Mackay-Steven, a 30-year-old Scotland internationalist, arrived at Tynecastle Park on Friday to sign a two-and-a-half-year contract. It brought an end to a cloak-and-dagger process which had to be conducted in strict secrecy away from public eyes.

The player offers experience of reputable clubs like Liverpool, Fulham, Celtic and New York City, and will compete for wide spots with Jamie Walker, Jordan Roberts, Elliott Frear and Josh Ginnelly.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The sense of coup surrounding this capture is unshakeable. From the average scarf-toting fan on Gorgie Road to owner Ann Budge in the boardroom, everyone associated with Hearts recognises the value in their new recruit.

Even more so for a club currently ensconced in the second tier of Scottish football. Mackay-Steven was identified not only as a player for this campaign but for upcoming seasons when Hearts intend to be back competing amongst elite clubs.

Level of interest

Their move usurped Premiership Aberdeen and others who were keen to sign the winger after he left New York in December. The level of interest dictated that Hearts needed to move swiftly, quietly and efficiently to secure the services of an unassuming talent who should improve their team considerably.

“We knew there would be a lot of interest in him so we tried to keep it very low-profile and keep it out of the press,” explained manager Robbie Neilson, speaking exclusively to the Evening News.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“We knew he was coming back from America and we were waiting on him. It was a case of us getting to him and convincing him to come to us before it got out that he was looking to stay in Scotland. He will bring great quality and ability.”

In this instance, Hearts may have reaped the benefits of circumstance. Mackay-Steven’s girlfriend is based in Glasgow and he is eager to be nearer her, which may have influenced his decision not to rejoin Aberdeen.

He has spent the last 18 months in the United States – half of that period in a Covid-enforced lockdown – and is now seeking a bit of stability and normality in his life. Hearts was the correct option at an ideal time.

There is also an existing relationship between Mackay-Steven and Neilson. They were team-mates at Dundee United for six months during the 2011/12 season and remained in touch.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“I've known Gary a long time and I've bumped into him now and again. We've always had a decent relationship,” added Neilson.

“He'd been away in America for a couple of years, all through lockdown, and his girlfriend was back in Glasgow. I think he just wanted to be back in Scotland and spend some time here because he'd been stuck in America for nine months and unable to leave.

Other offers

“There's no doubt he had other offers. He wants to get back enjoying his football and playing regularly every week. It's a great signing for us and a good place for him to come and play as well.”

Neilson does not need reminding of the criticism stemming from Hearts’ lack of pace and creativity in recent years. He is gradually trying to address the issue and knows the need for greater on-field urgency.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

He inherited the bulk of an underperforming squad put together by predecessors Craig Levein and Daniel Stendel when he chose to leave his job as Dundee United manager and return to Tynecastle in June last year.

Now aided by new sporting director Joe Savage, the priorities this month were signing a winger and a striker. One box on that agenda has been ticked.

The aforementioned Frear and Roberts have yet to show their mettle in maroon but the thought of Ginnelly on one wing and Mackay-Steven on the other is one to relish for Hearts supporters.

“We spoke about getting width into the team with people who can get at full-backs and deliver crosses. It's something we've done in games but we needed more options in that areas,” said Neilson.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“These guys are explosive players who are running at people, so you need a couple of them starting plus a couple on the bench. You can't expect them always to play a full 90 minutes so you will need someone to come on.

Quality in training

“Getting Gary in gives us width. He has great talent. He is an experienced player who has won leagues and cups. He's come into the group and give everyone a lift right away. You could see his quality on the first day of training.

“For us, it's just managing him at the moment because he hadn't trained since December 12. We are looking forward to him getting involved in the games.”

There will be slightly less of those in the weeks ahead after the Scottish Football Association announced a minimum three-week suspension for all leagues below the Championship, plus the Scottish Cup.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

That took effect at midnight last night, meaning Hearts have only league matches to focus on for the moment. Mackay-Steven's Hearts debut is expected to come this weekend away at Alloa.

“There were some offers but I’d kind of known the manager, I’d played with him briefly, and I’d been watching from afar,” the player told the Edinburgh club’s website. “He’s done a great job everywhere he’s been. I spoke to him and he showed his plan for Hearts.”

Hearts love it when a secret plan comes together – even more so when done privately.

Read More
Hearts restart Covid 19 testing using £500,000 grant from Scottish Government

A message from the Editor: Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by Coronavirus impacts our advertisers. If you haven't already, please consider supporting our sports coverage with a digital sports subscription.