The 18-year-old, who has represented Scotland at age-group level, only made his competitive debut for Hearts last month. He was the subject of an offer from Swansea last summer, but Hearts rejected it as too small. When Michael Laudrup’s club came back with a much-improved offer, however, they felt unable to turn it down, especially as their hoped-for exit from administration has yet to happen.
King, whose older brother Billy also plays for Hearts, is in Gary Locke’s squad for this afternoon’s Premiership match at home to Motherwell. Whether he starts, however, could depend on the outcome of several fitness tests, with Callum Tapping, Kevin McHattie and Danny Wilson all doubtful. If defenders McHattie and Wilson fail to make it, there will be a case for Jamie Hamill moving from midfield into the back four, leaving a gap which King could fill.
Another option for the manager is to start Sam Nicholson, who has impressed in his outings thus far. The attacking midfielder, who turns 19 later this month, made his debut at Inverness in the 2-0 defeat in August.
While Locke, assistant manager Billy Brown and Bryan Jackson of BDO have all pleaded with the authorities to relax their signing ban to enable the manager to rest some of the first team’s young and inexperienced players, Nicholson admitted he was simply delighted to be in the team. “It’s brilliant,” he said. “I never thought when I was younger I’d get this chance at such an early age, but I’m hoping I take my chance. “All the players want to do is play. Besides the fact of needing a rest, a lot of the players don’t want to rest. I think the manager is right saying some of them might need a rest, but as players all they want to do is play. It’s a hard one for us.”
As Hearts’ hopes of escaping relegation have faded with every new defeat, it has been assumed that the dressing room at Tynecastle must be a desolate place. But Nicholson, who as a Hearts fan feels like he is living a dream despite the poor results, insisted there was no problem with the squad’s morale, and that they would remain optimistic.
“We totally keep a positive mindset. The gaffer has told us to stay positive – there’s no point in getting negative. There’s still the rest of the season to go, and you never know, we might start picking up points. That’s how we’ve gone by it – staying positive and trying to get points from every game. It’s the only way to deal with the situation.
“I used to have a season ticket and went to all the games, so running out at Tynecastle is a dream come true. My family have come to all my games. When I was younger I used to watch Rudi Skacel, and he was here two seasons ago. I went to the Scottish Cup final in 2006 and it was brilliant.
“Being a fan, when you’re on the pitch you know what it means to all the fans watching you, so it makes you work that wee bit harder. But the fans have been great this season anyway. Even other clubs have noticed it. The away support has been outstanding. I think the fans have done well sticking by us.
“A lot of my pals are Hearts fans. I’ve got a lot of pals that are Hibs fans as well, so I get a bit of stick from them. But I get a lot of support from the Hearts fans. They’re in with the ones that sing now – the maddies. They’re in with them.”
And, being a Hearts supporter himself, Nicholson is able to focus on what is far more important than the present run of results: the very future of the club. “I think the most important thing is that the club is safe, at the end of the day,” he added. “That’s what we’re all aiming at – just hoping the club survives. And we’ve still got a chance to pick up lots of points before the end of the season.”
It is a chance they have failed to take in recent weeks. Since upsetting the odds to beat Aberdeen at Pittodrie in early November, they have failed to win in their last eight league matches and are now 19 points behind second-bottom Ross County.
Motherwell’s form is a complete contrast. Since being beaten by Albion Rovers and Celtic in successive matches in late November and early December, Stuart McCall’s side have won their last five games and are now just a point behind Aberdeen with a game in hand.