At 36, Steven MacLean was supposed to be a bit-part player winding down his career after signing for Hearts from St Johnstone.
Here he is having scored his fourth goal in ten appearances to help secure his new team a place in the Betfred Cup semi-finals. Now he looks set to start for the third time in only seven days as Hearts host his former club at Tynecastle today.
The intensive schedule means he hasn’t had time to consider how he might celebrate should he score this afternoon. “I’ll worry about that when it happens,” he said.
Having spent six successful years at St Johnstone under a manager he considers to be his friend, it’s a complex set of emotions he might need to process. He will always be considered a legend in Perth having scored in the 2-0 win over Dundee United in the 2015 Scottish Cup final.
“I’ve scored against teams I’ve played with before – Sheffield Wednesday, I was kind of a bit quiet and Plymouth Argyle I gave it big style,” he said, revealing where he had been happy – and where he hadn’t.
MacLean was a record signing at Plymouth but scored only six goals in more than 50 appearances. He has nearly reached that total at Hearts already and is showing why Craig Levein signed him on a pre-contract last season. But his history with St Johnstone, combined with a close relationship with their manager Tommy Wright, means he doesn’t know how he will feel if he hits the net again this afternoon. There are certainly no ill feelings towards anyone at the Perth club, where he enjoyed the most productive spell of his career to date.
“Sometimes for 30 seconds I lose myself so we’ll see what happens,” he said. “Let’s just hope I score and we win the game.”
The striker admits it was a wrench to leave McDiarmid Park after so long but believes it might have proved the right arrangement for both parties. It has certainly worked out for MacLean, who has contributed more than many expected and looks set to continue up front today with Uche Ikpeazu still a week away from a recall following a foot injury.
MacLean was used more sparingly by Wright, who never played him on synthetic pitches due to a history of knee trouble. It now seems he was being over-protective of the player, who played the full 90 minutes – and scored – when Hearts defeated Hamilton Accies 4-1 on their artificial surface in August.
“He was like a friend as well so if I ever had a problem he was somebody I could speak to,” said MacLean. “I’ve a lot of respect for him. It was difficult [leaving] but it wasn’t in a way as well, because we had such respect for each other that we could tell each other anything.
“I wanted to come and play in big games and play in front of big crowds,” he added. “Listen, I didn’t think we’d be in this situation – I don’t think anybody did. We’re top of the league and in the semi-final of a cup. It’s great but it’s important that we keep our feet on the ground. We’ll do that because we’re a good group.”
Meanwhile, St Johnstone boss Wright will not take a gamble on Tony Watt’s fitness.
The former Celtic and Hearts striker is a doubt after picking up a knock against the former on Wednesday and Wright does not want to risk throwing the 24-year-old into action if it means he could be forced into an early rejig.
“We’ll assess Tony again in 24 hours,” he said yesterday. “We only want to select him in the squad if he’s fit.”