Brad McKay looks to future at Hearts

Brad McKay. Picture: SNS
Brad McKay. Picture: SNS
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GIVEN his second name, Hearts’ latest academy graduate seemed destined to succeed at Tynecastle. Perhaps not this quickly, though. Brad McKay finds himself in the unprecedented position of preparing for a cup final in what would be only his second senior appearance.

His first saw the 19-year-old deliver a sound performance in Sunday’s Edinburgh derby. With Fraser Mullen injured, McKay is now a strong candidate to start at right-back in the Scottish Communities League Cup final.

The spelling may be different, but namesakes Dave and Gary would certainly be proud. McKay handled his baptism of fire at Easter Road on Sunday with notable poise after replacing the injured Mullen. He is a centre-back to trade but produced an imperious display at right-back and even saved the day with a late clearing header on his own goal line as Hearts secured a welcome point against Hibs. In a season where Riccarton has become evermore important to the club’s future, McKay is the latest in a long list of academy pupils to look accustomed to first-team football.

He would be forgiven for feeling slightly overwhelmed since a cup winner’s medal may be just 90 minutes away. Before the weekend, he had never even made an appearance on the substitutes’ bench, let alone the senior team. Now events could conspire to etch his name in Tynecastle folklore alongside the other Mackays so synonymous with that maroon jersey. Dylan McGowan is attempting to recover from injury in time for Sunday’s final. If he fails, McKay will most likely be asked to deputise at right-back again.

“I said to him after the Hibs game that he should be full of confidence now,” said Hearts’ interim manager, Gary Locke. “He had a great clearing header at the back post right at the end of the match. I thought he was excellent overall. He hadn’t played a first-team game and the Edinburgh derby was a great match to put him into. I felt he acquitted himself brilliantly. He’s been a standout for the under-20s this season and I know what he’s capable of. Right-back isn’t his favoured position, he’s more of a centre-back, but he handled himself tremendously well.

“He’s one of these boys that I like because he thrives on clean sheets. He’s not interested in getting forward and scoring goals, he just likes to defend. That’s all he does every day at training. If we can keep working with him and keep him improving, we could have another diamond coming through.”

McKay’s nickname around Riccarton is “Angry Man” in reference to the aggression that sets him apart from many opponents. It is one of many attributes Locke likes in the young defender. “He’s a good talker, he’s aggressive and he’s a winner,” continued Locke. “He’s a kind of no-nonsense centre-half. We put him on at right-back and I’ve seen him play there before so I didn’t have any qualms about asking him to step into that role. I had no doubts whatsoever he could handle playing in a derby. We have a lot of young lads at Hearts who are getting an opportunity and they are all very confident in their own ability. Big Brad certainly is. I wouldn’t have put him on against Hibs if I didn’t think he could handle it. He played really well.”

It is almost three years since McKay joined the Riccarton academy as a raw 17-year-old from Edinburgh City. His first-team chance comes after a brief loan spell at Stenhousemuir earlier in the season, which provided a vital taste of competitive senior football. His latest opportunity arrives as a result of Mullen’s misfortune. The young full-back has suspected ankle ligament damage sustained in a tackle on the Hibs’ winger Matt Done which is likely to rule him out of the final.

“He’s got a bad one,” admitted Locke. “He went to make a tackle and it’s his ankle ligaments so we’ll assess him again. Hopefully it’s not as bad as what we think but it’s very badly swollen. We’ll need to have a look at him and see how he is. It was a block tackle and the ankle has swollen up. Possibly he’s doubtful but it’s too early to tell at this minute. Fraser has done really well this season and was unfortunate to come off.”

Further disruption to the back line is the last thing Hearts need during the most important week of their season. The 2012/13 campaign has been peppered with uncertainty and chaos on and off the field, none more so than in the right-back area. Callum Paterson, Ryan McGowan, Darren Barr, Dylan McGowan, Ryan Stevenson and Mullen have all occupied the position at one stage or another this season. Jamie Hamill is close to returning from almost a year out with knee ligament damage, although he is unlikely to be risked in a cup final after such a long absence.

“Earlier on in the season we had a very settled back four with Gowser, Webby, Danny and Marius,” continued Locke. “We’ve lost three of those four now. Danny Wilson and Andy Webster were magnificent on Sunday. They won everything in the air and headed everything away. Kevin McHattie has also been exceptional in the last few games. We’ve had to change the right-back a couple of times now but we got another clean sheet against Hibs, which is another positive in the defensive department.

“I’m pleased with four points out of the last six after beating St Johnstone last week. It wasn’t a great spectacle with the way pitches are all over the place at the moment but in terms of battling and working hard, I thought we did that brilliantly. I’d like to have seen us a wee bit better in the final third of the pitch. Derbies are all about competing and winning second balls and I thought we did that really well.”

Brad McKay’s competitive edge was evident for all to see at Easter Road. It might well be needed again at Hampden Park on Sunday.