Why Jamie Walker could benefit most from Hearts' appointment of Robbie Neilson

Fans have seen the best of the attacker since he returned to Tynecastle last summer

By Joel Sked
Thursday, 25th June 2020, 4:45 pm

He had drifted infield ready to support lone striker Jason Keatings, only for a cross from Callum Paterson to be pushed out to the other flank. A reassessment of the situation was required, but Adam Eckersley was on hand to collect the loose ball and feed it to him.

On the corner of the Hibs box, 25 yards from goal, Jamie Walker finally had the ball. Faced up by Scott Allan, he collected the pass with the suggestion that he was going to go left. Instead, much to the annoyance of Allan, he went right.

The Hibs midfielder desperately grasped at his shirt. Walker was having none of it. He was too nimble, too quick. He unleashed an arrowed shot, off the front of his boot, into the far corner, past the redundant dive of Mark Oxley.

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Jamie Walker had a difficult season on his Hearts return. Picture: SNS

Hearts fans were reminded of that Jamie Walker today, his 27th birthday, as the club posted the goal, from the Championship draw with Hibs back in January 2015, across its social media channels as a way of a birthday message.

It was a reminder of a player who has thrilled fans. One of those individuals who can muster the almost telepathic quality, persuading supporters off their seats when he is in possession.

Yet, it is a quality which was too often missing last season.

2019/20 wasn’t a positive year

Walker celebrates the goal against Hibs. Picture: SNS

An opening day goal against Aberdeen and then a sprightly performance in a Betfred Cup encounter against Motherwell gave further justification for the signing and subsequent three-year deal. But an innocuous challenge before half-time ended his match with a fractured fibula.

Returning in October, he started just eight more games. A peripheral figure as the team struggled. He was a shadow of the figure which shone under Gary Locke, Robbie Neilson and Ian Cathro.

Fans were coming away from matches frustrated with his impact rather than fulfilled and illuminated. In fact, it is hard to analyse his performances. Yes, the team as a whole were poor, but too often when he was on the pitch the game passed him by. The familiar positions he flourished in previously looked alien to him. There was an odd sparkle here and there, but too often it fizzled out.

Supporters were left wondering where the real Jamie Walker was.

Walker has had his injury issues. Picture: SNS

The rise of a talent

Walker is one of the most talented and hyped academy graduates the club have produced. For regular watchers of the Hearts youth sides, he often stood out, whether it be for a piece of skill, leading a defender on a merry dance or simply pinging one from distance into the top corner.

His progression was natural. A successful loan spell at Raith Rovers before being introduced into the first team. However, he entered a side which was regressing, the financial predicament ensuring youngsters were elevated into more prominent roles within the team. Some weren't ready. Walker was. He took on a huge attacking responsibility, especially in the season the club were relegated. There was a sense of ‘give it to Walker and let him do his thing’. Take the team up the pitch, relieve pressure, make something happen.

Despite the difficulties the team faced, from an individual perspective it was a fantastic learning experience, and a drop down into the Championship, coupled with a new era at the club, was ideal for his next step.

Robbie Neilson has got the best out of Walker previously. Picture: SNS

What he and his team-mates had gone through meant they were more seasoned, more wise, more experienced than they may well have been in different circumstances.

The winger who isn’t a winger

He was a leading attacking light at the club and it was clear from early on that the style Robbie Neilson was implementing was going to bring the best out of Walker.

Many may think of him as a winger, but he’s not. He’s a No.10 played wide. The system under Neilson provoked the best from him. Full-backs to provide width, allowing Walker to move infield and pick up those half spaces between defence and midfield. It is in those areas where he is most destructive.

He netted 11 goals that season, including a spell of eight in 11. And then followed it up with eight in the Premiership the following campaign. A fine return for taking a step up, while also starting just 20 matches due to injury. A knee issue robbed him of a chunk of the season but he recovered by scoring six in eight league outings.

The following season, he stayed injury-free and struck 15 in all competitions. But more than that it was the manner of his goals and his general physique. Seven of his 12 league goals came from central areas, including a technically stunning strike at Hamilton. In addition, he was svelte, possessed acceleration and had a real confidence, a single-mindedness in the final third. He was morphing from wide man to central figure.

Those two top-flight campaigns highlighted why and how Walker thrives. He had two managers who had full belief in him – Neilson and then Ian Cathro. But they also presented the first real indication of why, four years on, he hasn’t quite reached the levels many expected of this precocious talent.

The prodigal son returns

Levein spoke of it following Walker’s return last summer.

"He's had a problem with his knee for a while and finally they got to the bottom of it,” he said. “He had two chunks of bone removed which had grown underneath his patella tendon. He has had them out and is feeling great. I have no doubt that hampered him before. I feel he will be fresh and ready to go."

Towards the end of his first spell Walker looked inhibited with niggles and strains. On top of that there was the speculation linking him with a move to Rangers. However, his future lay down south, but only for a short period. After 18 months, 26 matches and two clubs the prodigal son returned to Tynecastle.

Twelve months on, and now 27, the player should be approaching the prime of his career. Instead, with just 41 appearances in the last two campaigns, there is an individual in need of on-field direction.

Robbie Neilson’s appointment on Sunday was met with Walker’s approval – the player posting the clapping emoji under the club’s announcement on social media.

There may not be a better manager to provide the compass than Neilson, and perhaps Walker knows it.

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