Billy King returns to Hearts this summer unclear on his future. A six-month loan at Rangers expires at the end of the season, but King is unsure what lies ahead at his parent club despite his contract running until June 2017.
He remains convinced that a temporary move to Ibrox was correct to ensure more game time. It also helped the 21-year-old retain a place in the Scotland Under-21 squad, who face France in Angers tonight. An added bonus is the fact he is likely to win another Championship title to add to last season’s triumph in the same league with Hearts.
King has no idea whether he will fit into plans at Tynecastle next season. Nonetheless, with Europa League qualifiers beginning on June 30, he is eager to play a part and re-establish himself in maroon.
“There’s no buy clause, it’s a six-month loan to Rangers and I’ll be returning to Hearts in the summer,” he told the Evening News in an exclusive interview. “The Hearts team are doing really well just now, they look like they’ve secured third place and they’re sitting in a really good position.
“The first European qualifier is on June 30 so that’s definitely something to look forward to. We’ll be putting in a lot of work preparing for that game and trying to get through.
“The loan has been good for me so far. I think it’s a stepping stone in my development. We’ll see what happens at the end of the season. You never know what’s going to happen over the summer with players coming in and going out, and how the gaffer [at Hearts] decides to play.
“I’m just enjoying it and taking it as it comes. I’m trying to enjoy the moment and I’m not too busy thinking about the future.”
King has managed three starts and four substitute appearances since joining Rangers on transfer deadline day at the start of February. He revealed how he badgered Robbie Neilson, the Hearts head coach, throughout January asking to leave on loan.
“I wasn’t playing at Hearts and I think I needed a change. It was frustrating for me at Hearts, to be honest,” he admitted. “I needed a change of environment to get a fresh start, a fresh run at things. I think moving to Rangers has done that. I’m playing and training with a smile on my face so it’s been good so far.
“I was always wanting to go out on loan in January. I didn’t know which clubs were interested, my agent kept that quiet. I just told him I wanted to try and get out somewhere. I was delighted when he told me Rangers were interested and, obviously, it happened quite quickly. I’m just glad Robbie let me go out on loan.
“I asked him a few times earlier in January and he just kept saying ‘no’. I spoke to him at training the day I left and he said: ‘We’re going to let you go.’ I was delighted getting the chance to get away because I knew it was Rangers. I think it was for the better for the both parties.
“There were only three wingers, me, Sam [Nicholson] and Jamie [Walker]. Jamie was injured at the time and when Robbie let me go he said: ‘Jamie’s coming back and we play with one winger here so we’re going to let you go because Jamie’s looking quite fit.’ I think that was the main reason.
“Everything is going well at Rangers. We had a disappointing result against Falkirk last week but apart from that we’ve been doing well. If I don’t start for Rangers, I know I’m going to come on and get 30 minutes. In that respect, you’re getting a good chunk of game time and that’s the reason I wanted to go on loan.
“I came in and scored on my debut. I’ve come on in a few games and done well. I’ve got a lot more to give because I haven’t reached my full potential yet. That’ll come. It’s taken a while to get settled into the team. The way Rangers play is different to Hearts. I’ve started three games and that’s helped me keep my place in the Scotland Under-21 squad. Hopefully I can keep it going.”
Internationl duty sees King again link up with Hearts colleagues Nicholson, Jordan McGhee, Jack Hamilton and Liam Smith. They are all expected to feature over the next few days as Scotland embark on vital European Under-21 Championship qualifiers against France and Northern Ireland.
“It was good seeing them as I haven’t seen them in a while. Big Soapy [John Souttar] has been a good signing for Hearts,” said King, who scored against the French in a 2-1 defeat at Pittodrie last October.
Tonight’s gameplan will be to stifle France and try to hit on the counter-attack, which may mean a role for King from the start. Coach Ricky Sbragia faces a difficult, albeit not impossible, task to guide the young Scots to next summer’s finals in Poland. They are currently fourth in qualifying Group 3, five points behind second-placed France and six behind leaders Iceland but with a game in hand on both countries.
“We’ve done video on the French and we know they keep the ball really well,” said King. “They’re a physical side, they’re all fast and they’re all strong. We will need to be really good defensively and break at the right times on the counter-attack. France have drawn a couple of games and they lost to Iceland, so they’re definitely vulnerable to the counter- attack.
“I think I’m good defensively as a wide player. When you play against teams with a lot of possession, you need to be good on the counter-attack. You could say the same about most wingers. The general winger has pace and should be good on the break. Ricky has a lot of players to choose from.”
He also has a lot to consider from the opposition, with the likes of Paris Saint Germain midfielder Adrien Rabiot a dominant presence.
“I don’t think Kingsley Coman will be involved, thankfully,” smiled King, acknowledging that the Juventus winger on loan at Bayern Munich has been promoted to the full France squad since that last meeting in Aberdeen.
“They still have the boy Rabiot and these guys are top players. We’ll need to be at our best. A draw would be a decent result going into the Northern Ireland game.”
With Neilson expected to attend both matches, strong displays from King would help his case come June when he reports back to Riccarton.