Hearts will manage new signing Jamie Walker’s game time throughout the Betfred Cup group stage until he is fully fit. The forward is eager to face Dundee United at Tynecastle Park this evening and go up against former Hearts colleague Liam Smith, but he may need to content himself with a substitute’s role.
A tight thigh muscle meant Walker was not risked in Saturday’s friendly at Glenavon or Monday’s game with Inverness Caledonian Thistle. He underwent knee surgery with former club Wigan Athletic in January and has not played since December.
He could make a second debut in maroon in tonight’s cup tie, but will be used cautiously by manager Craig Levein. “When I came here I wanted to hit the ground running and play games and score goals. I think the gaffer is being clever,” explained Walker.
“I spoke to him at the start of the week and I think he’s going to build it up over the Betfred Cup games and hopefully I’ll be ready for the start of the league. I said I’d try playing the Glenavon game but he didn’t want to take any risks.
“It was just tight. I took two days off training this week but I’m feeling fine. I don’t want to go in and play with niggles, so I’m just trying to get it right and start the season well.”
Smith returns to his old club after joining Dundee United on a pre-contract from Ayr this summer. “I’m actually really good friends with Liam and we speak quite a bit away from football. It’ll be good to go up against him, Robbie Neilson and Osman Sow,” said Walker.
“The messages from Liam haven’t started yet. He went to Ayr and did really well and got a good move to Dundee United. You can look at it both ways. He maybe had options to go to Premiership teams but he might not have played. He went to Ayr and played quite a lot then got a good move. He believed in himself that he could take the opportunity.
“I first got to know him when he came into the first-team squad here. He was a really good player. He maybe suffered when [Ian] Cathro played him left-back. He had a few bad games and never really recovered but I’m delighted for where he is now.
“We have a bit of banter about that game when he gave away two goals at Dundee, but he was playing left-back. He didn’t like it there.”
Playing at Tynecastle again will be a proud moment for 26-year-old Walker. He joined Hearts aged ten and graduated from youth academy to first team before leaving for Wigan in January 2018.
“It’s a special place for me and my family. They all have season tickets, I think they’re delighted to see me back and I’m delighted to be back. Hopefully I can do well,” he said. Ironically, one of the biggest influences on his career in Edinburgh was Neilson – now Dundee United’s head coach.
“Robbie came to Hearts and did very well for my career. I played very well under him,” recalled Walker. “I’ll speak to him and see what he’s saying then hopefully we can get one over him. He did well for this club. He took them from where they were and built it back to the top. He taught me things about my overall game – on and off the park.”
Neilson was known for regular double and triple training sessions at Riccarton but led Hearts to the Championship title and promotion with a record points total in 2015. Twelve months later, as a newly-promoted Premiership side, they secured European football. “When everyone first saw the number of training sessions, it was a bit long,” smiled Walker. “But everyone bought into what he wanted to do and respected that.
“The season in the Championship and first season back in the Premiership, he got the rewards. We just got off to a good start, a good pre-season, trained a lot and worked really hard. We carried it on, won a trophy and thoroughly enjoyed it.”
That 2014/15 Championship campaign was one of Walker’s most enjoyable. “I think so, other than the season I scored 15 goals. It was special because Hibs and Rangers were there,” he said. “There was maybe more coverage on that league than the top league.
“Some players don’t like coming to Tynecastle and if you can get off to a good start the fans get behind you. It’s a tough place to come. We’ll look to start well tonight and hopefully the fans get behind us.”