THERE was a time when Jamie MacDonald thought his only option would be to quit Tynecastle in a bid to find regular first-team football.
Fast forward 12 months, and things couldn’t be going much better for the young Hearts goalkeeper.
MacDonald has just become a father for the first time, is now established as the No. 1 choice between the sticks for the Jambos – and a Scottish-Cup winner to boot – then fulfilled a dream last month by playing both legs of the glamour Europa League play-off against Liverpool.
As years go, 2012 has been something of a sensational one so far for MacDonald and the 26-year-old admits he has to pinch himself at the way things have turned around.
In reality, though, the keeper has had to fight tooth and nail for everything that has come his way and his persistence has paid off.
In the last few years, he has been forced to sit on the bench and watch as the likes of Janos Balogh and Marian Kello claimed the gloves at Tynecastle and, in his desperation to play week-in week-out, went on loan to Queen of the South where he played in the 2008 Scottish Cup final as the Doonhamers lost out to Rangers.
On his return to Tynecastle he again spent the majority of his time on the bench but, with Kello’s contract running down towards the end of last season – and the Slovakian finding himself frozen out of the team – MacDonald found himself thrust into the starting XI in January. He went on to play the final six months of last season and hasn’t looked back.
He signed a new contract with Hearts at the turn of this year, tying him to Tynecastle until June 2014 and that deal also carries the option of a year’s extension to 2015 at the club’s discretion.
His determination and hard work had finally paid off and MacDonald, who has now spent nine years as a professional with the Edinburgh club, would clearly love to extend that even further.
MacDonald said: “It has been a long time coming for me. I’ve battled away for a lot of years and you do get to the stage where you think that it might never happen for you. There were probably doubts in my mind a couple of seasons ago where I wondered if I would have to move on elsewhere to play regular football.
“But things happen. I got into the team, played the last six months of the season and ended up winning the Scottish Cup.
“It turned out to be a really good season for me. Now I am established in the first team and I think it is time for me to really improve and kick on.
“I want to get my first full season under my belt with Hearts and I really think it is my time now. I want to show people that I can do the job and prove that I was right to stay here and fight for my place.”
The last few weeks have been something of a whirlwind for the Hearts team, and MacDonald in particular, who has not only played at Anfield against Liverpool but seen him and partner Roxzannah welcome their first child into the world.
Daughter Darragh arrived just 24 hours before kick-off in the first leg against Liverpool at Tynecastle last month and it was touch and go whether the keeper would make the match.
MacDonald admits that he has been on a high ever since and recalled: “It’s been amazing, it’s almost been a bit of a blur, I suppose. The first week or ten days with the new baby was a bit of a culture shock but we’re in a routine now.
“It gives me something to focus on when I go home. I tend to be quite low if we’ve had a bad result and I think about things too much, things that we could have done differently. But when I go home now, football is out of my mind because you’ve got other responsibilities – and I think it will be good for my football as well because it means that you’re going into the next day completely fresh and ready to go again.”
Following the international break, MacDonald and Co face a trip to St Mirren in the SPL.
The Tynecastle side travel to Paisley for what is likely to prove another tricky league fixture and MacDonald warned that Hearts will have to be on form if they are to come back along the M8 with all three points in the bag.
He added: “I don’t think that we have done too badly this season, although results-wise we would have been looking for a bit better. Our performances in games have been pretty good. The only game that I think we were poor in was against Aberdeen and possibly the first half against Hibs at Easter Road. We completely dominated the match against Inverness but lost a stupid penalty and then lost a stupid 93rd-minute equaliser.
“That was just silly mistakes on our part.
“Against Dundee, too, it was another stupid penalty in the first minutes and then it was one of those days when the ball just wouldn’t go into the back of the net. If we had scored one then I think we probably would have gone on to score two or three that day. Overall, though, if we keep playing the way that we have been, then I think that we will win a lot more than we will lose this season.”
As for tomorrow’s St Mirren Park visit, MacDonald explained that it has not always been a happy hunting ground for the Jambos.
“In the last few years St Mirren have always proved to be difficult opposition for us. The way the league has gone so far, everyone seems to be capable of beating everyone else.
“Although we’ve had a disappointing start to the season by our own standards and we’ve dropped a few points, just one win could put us right back up at the top of the table again.
“Every game is a difficult game but, this year, I think that will prove to be the case more than ever.
“Hopefully, we can go to Paisley and get a good result.”