Jamie Walker is not the first Scottish wayfarer to find English football an unforgiving landscape. It is guaranteed he won’t be the last.
His imminent return to Scotland needn’t be viewed as a retreat. Indeed, Walker is young enough – he turns 26 today – to be able to re-ignite opportunities down south should he desire to return there – and providing his expected return to Hearts does what it is intended to do, and re-boots his career.
Indeed, it was only earlier this month that Greg Stewart earned a dream move to Rangers despite what has to be viewed as a failed adventure at Birmingham City. Quickly falling out of favour at St Andrew’s, the winger returned north for three loan spells.
A successful period with Kilmarnock was bookended by less stellar spells at Aberdeen. But he has landed where he wants to be at the age of 29.
Like Stewart at Birmingham, Walker failed to even find the net at Wigan Athletic and now looks likely to cut short his stay by returning to Hearts. Whether the comforts and familiarity of home – Walker was attached to Hearts for 14 years prior to leaving for England – can spur him back to the form he displayed in a maroon shirt remains to be seen. Perhaps more central as far as this hope is concerned is the ability to stay fit - the player’s season was cut short by a knee operation in January.
Fitness issues hampered Stewart as well. Two of Scotland’s most talented players of recent times, both with the kind of ability we like to think is hard to teach, may well look to have been chewed up and spat back out after making the big step of moving to England.
In the case of Walker, Rangers fans will have further reason to feel relieved their club did not stump up the £1 million Hearts stubbornly demanded in the summer of 2017. They have reviewed his progress, or lack of it, in England, and thanked their lucky stars for then director of football Craig Levein’s intransigence.
“Hopefully I can get in the team and score a few goals,” Walker said on leaving Hearts for Wigan Athletic for a reported £300,000 after several months of speculation about his future. It didn’t seem unreasonable for him to want to leave Tynecastle for new experiences. He had done his bit and had already played 181 times by the time he left Hearts first time around.
He was the subject of two bids from Rangers. They were rejected for not coming close to what Hearts wanted and he was left out of the side by then manager Ian Cathro because the speculation was reckoned to have affected his frame of mind. He did return to the team, scoring twice more to make it a very creditable 40 goals in total before he departed for Wigan, then gunning for a return to the Championship. Walker made eight appearances and contributed to a title win but he was sent out on loan at the start of last season to Peterborough United. He remained in the third tier even if his parent club didn’t.
It was meant to be a season-long loan. But two goals – the only ones he struck south of the Border – and 17 appearances later he was back at Wigan after expressing frustration at being left on the bench too often for his liking and having been further hindered by a knee injury. It was a fate shared by Jason Cummings, Walker’s former team-mate (at Hearts youth level) and also later Hibs rival.
Cummings is another who has found the going hard down south, spending last season on loan at Peterborough and Luton from Nottingham Forest, where he remains under contract. It’s tempting to regard them as lost boys, scurrying home in the case of Walker. But if it can re-connect him to the old ways, the old possibilities, then so much the better for all concerned, including of course Hearts. It is certainly tangible proof of Levein’s recent pledge to make Hearts a better side to watch. Providing he can reach the form he showed in three excellent seasons between 2014 and 2017, Walker’s expected arrival to join an array of promising Academy graduates can only aid the manager in this quest.