A long saga which originally seemed set to deliver the player to Rangers concluded yesterday when Jamie Walker left Hearts to join Wigan Athletic.
The midfielder, a great-nephew of legendary Tynecastle player Tommy Walker, has signed a two-and-a-half-year deal with the League One club worth in the region of £300,000 to Hearts.
Walker, whose contract at Hearts was set to expire at the end of this season, was linked strongly with Rangers in the summer. The 24-year-old has been permitted to talk to interested clubs since the beginning of December after informing Hearts he had decided his future was elsewhere.
Two bids from the Ibrox club were turned down during the summer and the speculation unsettled the player, who was dropped from the Hearts first-team squad near the start of the season. Ian Cathro, the then head coach, claimed his form had been affected by the uncertainty.
Craig Levein, who eventually took over as manager after Cathro was sacked, later stressed that if Rangers had really wanted him they would have offered what he was truly worth. Levein recently told Hearts fans to enjoy the player while they could as it became clear he would be moving on.
Walker returned to the first team earlier this season, scoring two goals in 19 appearances. His last appearance in a campaign also disrupted by injury came in last month’s 0-0 draw with Hibs.
In total Walker scored 40 times in 181 appearances for Hearts and the Tynecastle club wished him well last night. “The club would like to wish Jamie every success in his career down south,” a statement on the official Hearts website said. The winger will wear the No 7 jersey at Wigan.
Walker is the last to leave of a talented crop of Hearts academy graduates who came through together and helped the club return to the Premiership at the first attempt following relegation in 2014. Hearts were forced to turn to their youth products when administration, together with a signing ban and 15-point sanction imposed by the SPL as a result, imperilled the club.
Young players such as Walker, Callum Paterson, Jason Holt and Sam Nicholson were a large reason why Hearts were able to recover from a potentially fatal set of circumstances. Others to come through at the time included Brad McKay, Dylan McGowan, Dale Carrick, Billy King and Kevin McHattie.
Underlining how clubs evolve at pace is the fact none of these players remains at Tynecastle now. Paterson left for Cardiff City last season in a deal that netted Hearts around £400,000. But Walker is arguably the most talented of the lot and made his debut as far back as 2012 following a period on loan at Raith Rovers. His first goal came in a 2-2 draw against Ross County in February 2013 and he started in Hearts’ League Cup final defeat by St Mirren a few weeks later.
Having been at Tynecastle since he was only ten years old Walker was keen to move on in a bid to re-ignite his career and having seen so many of his peers leave the club. But he wished Hearts well yesterday as he prepared to begin a new life at the DW Stadium.
“I am delighted to be here,” Walker said. “It has been on the cards for a while but I’m delighted to now get it over the line and concentrate on playing my football.
“I have been at Hearts a long time, it’s a great club with great people and I played a lot of games there and scored a lot of goals. This is a good change for me and certainly a club where I can progress my career.
“I had a few clubs sniffing around but as soon as I came here, saw the facilities, met the manager, watched the game and saw how the manager wants us to play and how that will suit me perfectly, I chose here.
“The team are flying high at the top of the table and hopefully going to the Championship – hopefully I can get into the team and contribute a few goals.”
Wigan are currently top of League One, two points in front of second-placed Shrewsbury Town. They drew 2-2 with Premier League Bournemouth in the FA Cup third round at the weekend. Walker’s debut could come against Peterborough at home this Saturday.