Hearts' Jamie Walker insists he is not unfit and has his say on relationship with manager Robbie Neilson
The Hearts winger is in the midst of a demanding summer conditioning programme and is irked at suggestions he is unfit. He enjoys a cordial relationship with Robbie Neilson but is attempting to convince the manager that he deserves more game time. His last start was March.
Scoring Sunday’s winner against Inverness Caledonian Thistle strengthens the 28-year-old’s claim. His motivation to prove a point was clear in an enthusiastic 25-minute cameo which might have brought the substitute four goals.
With quiet assurance, Walker insists he is fit and ready to play. Neilson explained to the Evening News last week that the player had been left out of the team during Premier Sports Cup ties in order to undergo extra training. Walker feels the endeavour is paying off.
“I feel great,” he said. “Most people were looking at that story the other day thinking I was unfit. Me and the gaffer had a good chat and it was more beneficial for me to stay at the training ground and do some extra work. We both agreed on that, then I managed to score the winner at the weekend.
“It was a mutual agreement between the both of us that I would work more at the training ground rather than coming on for just ten or 15 minutes. He put me on against Inverness and I feel I repaid him.”
Older and wiser
Some people routinely slate footballers every day on social media and Walker is sufficiently mature not to become unsettled by criticism. It no longer gets to him.
“Not really. Maybe four or five years ago it would. I’m a bit older and wiser now. I know the implications of social media and people will always have opinions. I just try to do my talking on the pitch.
“I feel good. Through pre-season I’ve done a lot of running and a lot of gymwork. I haven’t played from the start a long time. The gaffer said to you that, rather than coming on for ten or 15 minutes, I’d be better doing more work at the training ground. I did that, I got my chance on Sunday and scored a goal.”
Perfect timing with the opening cinch Premiership match against Celtic just days away. “I’m always confident when I come on that I can create a chance or score a goal. Hopefully that puts my in the manager’s thoughts for the Celtic game, which is a massive game.
“As a player, you always want to play from the start. If you’re on the bench, the best thing you can do is come on and score or make an impact.”
Ten minutes after his introduction against Inverness, Walker set off on a run and took one touch to control Liam Boyce’s pass without breaking his stride. His next touch was a clinical left-footed drive from 18 yards which nestled in the corner of the visitors’ net.
“I probably could have had a hat-trick but [Inverness goalkeeper] Mark Ridgers was superb. Some of his saves were fantastic,” admitted the Hearts player. “I was delighted just to come off the bench. It’s been a tough few games, I haven't played much so I was delighted to get on the pitch and contribute by scoring the winning goal.
“I was playing a bit deeper with Pete [Haring]. He was sitting and I was trying to get in touch with the strikers and forward players. As I’ve said to you many times before, when I get in front of goal I’m always confident I will score. Thankfully, I did that.
Should be playing
“I saw Ridgers coming out and the defender closing the gap. I thought I’d take it early so I was pleased to catch it sweetly and see it go in the net.
“As a player, you don’t want to spend pre-season running by yourself and doing all this extra stuff. I was happy, not to prove the manager wrong, but to prove I should be playing – that I want to play and I contributed to the team.”
Talk then turns to personal targets and positions. Walker has occupied a central midfield role in most of his appearances since pre-season began. It is a little alien to him but he also enjoys a licence to attack. Scoring goals remains his currency.
“My target personally is to hit double figures this season. I fell just short of that last year and obviously didn’t play as many games as I would like,” he said. “I’m working every day now with the fitness coaches and in the gym, trying to get as fit and strong as possible. If I’m contributing to the team, then I’m happy.”
Intriguingly, he was named in the Premier Sports Cup’s team of the round on the back of those 25 minutes on Sunday. They listed him in central midfield as part of a 3-4-3 formation.
“I played there a bit in pre-season and I don’t mind it if I can get forward and link with the strikers,” he explained. “As a number six, I don’t think I’d like playing there. If the manager puts me on and asks me to do a job somewhere, then I’ll always do it.”
Not quite ready for the Pirlo role just yet. However, if it means getting a game, Jamie Walker will play anywhere for Hearts.