JAMIE WALKER knows he’s in a fortunate position to be living his dream and the 19-year-old is adamant there is no chance of him taking his unlikely status as a first-team regular at Hearts for granted.
The softly-spoken Wester Hailes starlet has been one of the main beneficiaries of Hearts’ increased reliance on youth this season, amassing 22 appearances and starting all but two of the 13 matches since the winter break, including the League Cup final against St Mirren.
Walker is all too aware that there are plenty frustrated youngsters at other SPL clubs, as well as other young players who have been unable to make the breakthrough at Hearts in previous years, who would give everything to be in his position.
Having worked so hard over the past decade or so to earn a platform to shine, the much-vaunted winger, while understandably enjoying the kudos that comes with being a Hearts player, is in no mood to get carried away with his lot.
“I’ve played football since I was really young so it was always my dream to be a footballer and play for Hearts, but I never thought I’d play at Tynecastle and play in a Hampden final at such a young age,” he admitted. “It’s all happened for me quite early so I’m delighted with that. It’s a massive boost for all the young boys at Hearts that we’re getting our chance. I’ve got a few mates at other SPL clubs who are trying to break into their first teams, but it’s here where loads of young boys are getting their chance, so I’m delighted to be here.
“I’ve played with some of the boys here since I was nine or ten, so to play in the Hearts first team with them is what dreams are made of. I played seven-a-sides with Jason Holt when I was about eight-years-old, so he’s one of my best friends here. Me, Jason and Fraser Mullen have been here from when we were about ten years old and others have come in later. Loads of young boys have come and gone in that time, so it’s been hard to keep my performances high enough that I could stay here for that length of time. I’ve managed to do it, though, and it’s paying off now.
“When you see players getting released every year, it makes you realise that you can’t take anything for granted. You need to keep your performances high or you won’t play and you’ll drop down the leagues. You need to keep your fitness up and keep working hard to impress, so hopefully I can continue doing that. I’ve still got a lot to learn, but I’ve just got to try and take everything in my stride and deal with things when they come along.”
Walker, a diehard Jambo and distant relative of the legendary former Hearts manager Tommy Walker, has the additional drive of trying to keep his family and friends happy. “As a Hearts supporter, it’s the best feeling ever going out at Tynecastle and playing in front of all those fans,” he said. “My dad took me to loads of games as a kid. I think my first game was the 1998 final, but I don’t remember it. I was at the final against Gretna in 2006 and I was obviously there last year when we beat Hibs, so to be playing for Hearts now is just amazing.
“My whole family are Hearts fans so they’re all really proud of me. My dad sits with his mates in the main stand; he’s a proud dad. A few of my mates are Hearts fans and even the ones that aren’t have been coming along to the games as well, which is nice. They don’t treat me any differently since I got into the first team. We just have the same banter.”
With increased game time comes additional attention. The days of going out with his mates and remaining anonymous are now long gone for young Walker. Not that he’s complaining. “I get recognised a lot more but that’s part and parcel of what I do,” he acknowledges. “It’s nice when people recognise you and think so highly of you, although sometimes it can get a bit annoying when you’re out. You just need to deal with that. It’s better to be recognised for doing something like this than not being recognised at all. It puts a smile on your face. You get a lot of fans coming up asking for photos and autographs and that’s really strange at such a young age.”
Walker, a standout at Under-19 level, admits the step-up to the first team this season has been a sizeable one. However, he feels a loan stint at Raith Rovers last season, where he excelled, stood him in good stead for a breakthrough season in which he has, remarkably, emerged as Hearts’ first-choice winger following the exits of David Templeton and Andrew Driver, and the continued reluctance of Arvydas Novikovas to grab the bull by the horns.
“At the start of the season, there were a few wingers here, but a few have left and it’s worked out well for me because I’ve got a lot of game time,” he said. “I’m enjoying playing in the first team. It’s a huge jump from the 19s to the first team. You don’t get as much time on the ball and you’re up against better players in the first team. Sometimes it’s not about playing football, it’s about having to battle, so it’s a lot harder. Going on loan to Raith helped me massively. The First Division’s a hard level and you’re playing against experienced players so it set me up for playing in the SPL.
“In the first team you’re playing in front of thousands of fans who are reacting to everything you do, whereas there’s much smaller crowds at the 19s games. The first five or ten minutes can be a bit difficult and nervy until you get settled into the game, but as it goes on you just blank it all out and get on with it. It’s a lot tougher but I think I’ve done okay and I feel as if I’m progressing well. I’ve got a good bit of experience this season so hopefully I can go on and establish myself next season.”
As a right-footed wide player, some Hearts fans would rather see Walker playing on the right flank, so he can get to the byline and cut the ball back, but the player himself is quite happy where he is. “I prefer playing on the left so I can cut inside,” said Walker.
Having been involved in the Hearts youth ranks for the best part of a decade, Walker, a former pupil of Forrester High School, has been able to draw on significant sources of inspiration during his rise to the first team. He first joined the Hearts set-up before the club had made Riccarton their training base, but since then he has regularly rubbed shoulders with some of Hearts’ best players of the recent past at the Academy. “There’s been so many good players at the club while I’ve been here,” he recalls. “Guys like Paul Hartley and Edgaras Jankauskas . . . to see what they did here, it would be great if I could go on and do something similar. In the last few years, Temps and Driver were the two players I looked up to. They played my position and helped me a lot. It was nice of Temps and a few other boys to tweet me when I got my young player of the year award last week. The likes of Temps, Driver, Ryan McGowan and Christophe Berra have all come through the ranks at Hearts and done well for themselves. It’s just like anything in life, if you work hard, there’ll be opportunities.”
In a further boost to Walker’s hopes of making it big, he is now being managed by a fellow boyhood Hearts fan in Gary Locke who came through the ranks and went on to captain the club. “I’ve enjoyed working under Lockey,” he said. “His training’s good. He’s a massive Hearts fan as well and he captained the club. He’s loved by the Hearts fans so hopefully he can give me some good advice and keep me on the right track. He’s not changed too much since he took over, although he’s obviously changed a few wee things to do it his way. It was great to get a win for him against Ross County last weekend.”