On a night when the wretched conditions made it hard to decipher much of significance about Hearts, perhaps the most notable aspect of their hardfought Scottish Cup victory over Falkirk was that Jamie Walker’s introduction from the substitutes’ bench once again coincided with an upturn in the team’s performance.
The 26-year-old’s second stint at his boyhood club has hitherto failed to ignite, largely due to injury and fitness issues. However, his last two appearances off the bench have suggested that Walker may finally be ready to start making the type of impact supporters had hoped for when Craig Levein brought him back to Edinburgh last summer following 18 months in England with Wigan Athletic and Peterborough United.
His performance after replacing Lewis Moore for the last 22 minutes of Wednesday’s home match against Kilmarnock was crucial to his team reducing their arrears from 0-3 to 2-3 in the closing stages, and duly earned him praise from supporters and manager Daniel Stendel alike. Although he wasn’t restored to the starting lineup for the Falkirk game, he once again came off the bench and made a positive impact. This time he replaced Steven Naismith in the 62nd minute and helped Hearts enjoy the best of the play in the closing stages of a cup tie which had been fraught with danger for them until that point.
Although they had scored what proved to be the only goal of the game 12 minutes before Walker entered the fray, his arrival came just a couple of minutes after Falkirk had struck the woodwork for the third time in the match. For the first hour, certainly, the Bairns could consider themselves to have been the better team.
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Thereafter, however, Hearts managed to seize greater control of the match and looked the likelier side to score. This owed plenty to the presence of Walker, who brought some fresh spark and zest to their play. Crucially with regard to fitting into Stendel’s set-up, he also showed plenty desire to win the ball back high up the pitch, although on one occasion this resulted in him giving away a free-kick, much to the frustration of the manager who felt his player won the ball cleanly.
Just as Walker’s contribution could be considered greater than Moore’s on Wednesday, he was also more effective than Naismith in his time on the pitch at Falkirk Stadium.
He was unfortunate that the arrival of Stendel in December coincided with a time when he had just returned a month previously from a two-and-a-half-month injury lay-off and was clearly still short of match fitness and sharpness. After struggling his way through five starts in a row under caretaker manager Austin MacPhee and then failing to make an impact in Stendel’s first game in charge at home to St Johnstone, Walker told the Evening News “over the last few weeks I’ve struggled fitness-wise.”
His progress was further disrupted by another short injury lay-off at the end of December, and he is still waiting to make his second start under Stendel. There is little doubt that if Walker, who has had tough few years in terms of injury, can get a run of games under his belt and rediscover his best form, then he will be a notable asset to Hearts in their quest to avoid relegation and reach the last four of the Scottish Cup.
It is worth recalling that across his last three full seasons at Tynecastle, he scored 33 goals - including 15 in the 2016/17 campaign - as he established himself as one of the country’s brightest attacking midfielders in his early-to-mid 20s. Walker offered occasional reminders of his capabilities when he first arrived back in Edinburgh in the summer - most notably at home to Dundee United, away to Aberdeen and in the early stages of the ill-fated Betfred Cup win at Motherwell in which he went on to break his leg while making a vital block.
Six months down the line, he is showing signs that he may finally be equipped to return to prominence at his boyhood club. With other creative players at Tynecastle currently struggling to have the desired impact, a long-awaited second start under Stendel shouldn’t be far away for Walker.