Hearts' Gary Mackay-Steven opens up on New York life, why he came home, Hibs' Chris Mueller and Kardashians

Walking the same streets as Hugh Jackman and the Kardashians, no-one really noticed “soccer” players like Gary Mackay-Steven.

Gary Mackay-Steven, pictured during his time at New York City FC.

It meant that even when facing his New York City rivals, the New York Red Bulls, the hype and the pressure was contained in the stadium.

Which may have suited his personal life but, professionally, Hearts’ 31-year-old winger confesses he missed the spice associated with Scottish derbies.

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“I’d say the derby atmosphere is better here in Scotland. There, it’s a big game, too, and is special for the two sets of fans. But the atmosphere here is something you feel in the city.

Gary Mackay-Steven is back in Scotland with Hearts.

“You feel it all around you and everyone talks about it. You know when a derby game is coming up, so it will be special.”

On duty in the MLS for 18 months, he can compare those Hudson River derbies with the all-encompassing experiences of facing Dundee while at Dundee United, or one of the few head-to-heads with lower league Rangers during his spell at Celtic, so when he was offered the opportunity to join Robbie Neilson’s Gorgie side, the meeting with Hibs was one of the main reasons he said “yes”.

“New York is a bigger place, so it’s a little bit different. Everyone is talking about the game here, whereas there it’s not so much.

“Come game day, it’s a big game and a big atmosphere. But from what I’ve experienced in this country, you know there’s a derby game the week before.”

Mackay-Steven has Dundee derby experience under his belt.

This time the build up has been more protracted, with the Hearts-Hibs tussle a lamented absentee in last season’s league calendar as the sides contested different divisions.

The international break has drawn that out even longer, with the sides’ positioning in the top two Premiership spots, level on points, whipping up the demands and the emotions even further and offering those involved little escape.

A far cry from New York. There, it’s a different culture, where so many household names roam unencumbered and recognition is not an automatic precursor to an approach. Mackay-Steven said in his case, there was rarely the recognition, let alone the interaction.

In a nation where baseball, basketball, ice hockey and NFL dominate the landscape, he flew under the radar, which was lovely when he was exploring the city and going about his normal life but in a derby week, he missed the extra frisson.

“It’s that big a place and you would see big, big stars that would get no bother as well.

“I lived very close to the city in New York, so I would go in after training. Not every day, of course, because you travel a lot when you have away games, so you’re not in New York for an extended period of time.

“When you’re back, you experience a lot of it and I enjoyed a lot of aspects of it.

“There were a lot of reality stars out there.”

But how many A-listers did he spot just going about their business?

“Hugh Jackman … The Kardashians are big but shops would be closed for them shopping. In restaurants, you would see certain people and they got no bother, which was amazing for them but in New York there are so many people living there who are just used to it.

“I liked it. It was good but it’s cool being here and seeing how much football means. That’s good as well.

“Over there, you're aware [of the derby] within yourself but in Scotland people aren't afraid to pass comments. That's what a derby should be about because it means so much to the supporters. Hopefully we can make them happy.

“There are a lot more sports there so it has a different feel to it. I missed hearing people's views and opinions. You want to feel the game is really meaningful to people.”

He is rumoured to have grown up a Hibs fan, despite the geographical incongruity of that as a lad raised in Thurso, so, in his first capital derby since joining in January, he says he knows what to expect. And, he can’t wait to sample the raucous assault to the senses as big crowds become the post-pandemic norm again.

“You really notice the difference playing in front of crowds. The more full it is, the better. We're back at full capacity now and that's unbelievable for us as players.

“Now, you appreciate moments and the games coming up. You want to enjoy them.

“I didn't get to a derby but I'd watch them on telly, they're huge games.

“There was always goals and drama with a crazy atmosphere. I can't wait to play in one, it'll be special. Being at home, with our support, it'll be brilliant. I can't wait.

“Last year there were no fans, everywhere was the same, but you missed big games with fans in. So, this one will be massive. It’s probably the biggest game we look for on the fixture list, especially at home. I will relish it and enjoy it.”

He also hopes to help Hearts to the three points they need to move above Hibs at the top of the table. But, while planning to ruin their afternoon, he does offer the Leith fans some positivity, in the shape of their incoming US signing, Chris Mueller, who is scheduled to arrive in January.

“I've played against Mueller, he's a top player. Hibs have a good one there,” he says.

But having added to their own squad, with Barrie McKay the latest winger to arrive, Hearts have quality too.

“I remember facing Barrie in a derby a few years ago. He scored a great goal that day.. We've done really well in this window, signing a lot of quality players.

“That bodes well for the season ahead and keeps everyone on their toes.”

In Scotland, if standards slip, he can expect to hear about it. But that passion is one of the reasons Mackay-Steven came home.

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