WHEN footballers offer to play out of position to help their team, it is often no more than a pious pretence. When Brad McKay does it, you better believe he is serious.
The Hearts defender has played at centre-half and right-back since making his debut earlier this year, displaying an intense commitment to the cause that comes from having grown up as a supporter of the club. After losing form and being dropped from the team earlier in the season, he is desperate to get back into the action, and believes he has a good case for being played up front.
Whether Gary Locke and Billy Brown listen to that case remains to be seen, and today’s match at Celtic Park is maybe not the best occasion for the Hearts management team to make such a radical experiment from the start. But McKay’s plea has some reason behind it, and while he could start the match alongside captain Danny Wilson at the back, a move up front later in the game is plausible.
Along with Partick Thistle, Hearts are the second lowest scorers in the league after Hibernian and, with a signing ban still in place, they will need to get through the season with their current resources. Canadian international Kevin McKenna made the same transition from central defender to target man a decade ago, and McKay has some experience of making the same move, albeit at a lower level. “I have goals in me and I have asked to play up front before,” McKay said.
“I’ve played up front a good few times and I scored a hat-trick for the Under 20s against Kilmarnock once. I scored two headers and a tap-in – which was controversial as the defender was over the line when I forced it home, but I ran away with three fingers in the air so I claimed a treble.
“It is something that I can do. It is possibly an idea and I asked the gaffer at the start of the season to play as a striker when Danny Wilson signed on.
“I do score a lot of goals at training – John Robertson and the players call me the big centre-forward. If I was to liken myself to anybody it would be Peter Crouch. I am a goalscoring threat in the box.
“Robbo knows I have goals in me, and that’s a real compliment coming from a hitman like him. I have always played at the back, but I can play in attack.”
The Crouch reference was made at least half in jest, as McKay is not nearly so tall as the Englishman. But the 20-year-old is entirely serious about his willingness to do anything he can to help Hearts, even if he knows that the primary task this afternoon is likely to be preventing goals at one end rather than banging them in at the other.
“It’s a difficult one after losing 7-0 to Celtic in the last game,” he continued. “At Tynecastle we tried to go for it a wee bit and with the way Celtic played, it was the wrong game plan. They exploited the spaces between us and punished us, so we have a different game plan for this match.
“We’ll do what we were doing at the start of the season. We were a difficult team to break down and we didn’t lose many goals.
“We were fighting and we were hungry. We were an arrogant young side. We still are, but we just lost a bit of faith and belief.”
McKay came on for the second half of the Scottish Cup match at Tynecastle three weeks ago, with Dylan McGowan moving up to a position just in front of the back four. By that time the home team were 5-0 down, and McKay remembers being bewildered by the way in which Celtic were cutting his team-mates apart.
“I was sitting on the bench for the first half of the 7-0 defeat puffing my cheeks, wondering what was going on. Celtic played some wonderful stuff. We weren’t particularly bad, but they were unbelievable. I’ve been involved in some results that haven’t been great, but you need to have faith. We have to believe that we can stay in this league.
“At the start of the season I was playing well. I dipped in form a bit and in football you get papped out the team when that happens. It’s difficult when you’re working hard and not getting the rewards. That’s when you need to show character.”
McKay has character: that much is beyond doubt – at whichever end of the pitch he will be invited to show it.