Hearts new boy Conor Washington admits he has had a tough 18 months but the Northern Ireland international believes his difficulties are now behind him, which is why he had no qualms about adopting an iconic squad number.
The 27-year-old striker – who was released by Sheffield United following a goalless season and previously played for Queens Park Rangers – will follow in the footsteps of some significant Gorgie No 9s, from Willie Bauld and Stephane Adam, through to the club’s record goalscorer John Robertson and the most prolific marksman of recent seasons, fellow Northern Irishman Kyle Lafferty.
But unbowed by the feats of his predecessors, he is confident he can emulate some of their heroics, bang in goals and get his career back on track. “I didn’t have a second thought about asking for the No 9 shirt. I’m here to challenge to be the main striker and the aim is to be the top goalscorer,” said the man who is expected to add pace to Craig Levein’s frontline and likes to get in behind defenders.
“There’s not too much of a limit on how many I can score given the way the manager wants to play. It’s so refreshing to speak to him and [assistant] Austin [MacPhee] and to hear them say I’m good enough to come here and score goals and they like what I can do.
“I was third or fourth choice at United and it was a strange one at QPR – it’s a strange club in general – and no-one has gone in and done well after me and scored 20 goals. I was disappointed it didn’t work out there but the manager here wants me, wants me to play in a certain way and wants me to score goals and that’s what sold me on Hearts.”
A late starter, only seven years ago Washington was combining a full-time job as a postman with non-league football at St Ives Town.
“I’ll never shake that off will I? It was a good background to come from as it means I appreciate every day of training and I still have the hunger to go out and play,” he added.
After moves to Newport County and then Peterborough United, he was the subject of a reported £3 million switch to QPR in 2016.
He made 16 appearances for Sheffield United as they won promotion to the Premier League last season but the appearances and goals had dried up. His equaliser for Northern Ireland this month, as they went on to defeat Estonia in their Euro 2020 qualifiers, was his first goal since scoring for Queens Park Rangers in February 2018.
“It was a really tough year personally,” added Washington. “It was great to be part of the team but I only played 600 minutes of football and that’s not enough. I’ve always played games wherever I’ve been and that’s what I want to get back to doing.
“We’ve joked that it has given me an extra year on my career but I want to make up for lost time.
“I haven’t given a great account of myself over the last 18 months to two years and I’m glad to be given this opportunity by the manager and Austin to change that. Austin could see the hunger is still there, the fire in the belly was back over the last two international games.”
As soon as it became clear that he would be leaving the Blades this summer, MacPhee – a No 2 at both Hearts and Northern Ireland – began courting the striker, whose mother hails from Dunfermline but who qualifies for Northern Ireland honours thanks to his grandmother.
“Austin has been speaking to me at international get-togethers and I’ve also spoken with Michael Smith and Aaron Hughes who have told me it’s a really good club and a great one to be a part of. Austin has been on my case since he found out I was going to be a free transfer in the summer.”
That has paid off and now the player, who despite last season’s goal drought has averaged one goal every three games throughout his career, is ready to join his new team-mates on next week’s pre-season trip to Ireland.
While he knows his positivity will increase expectations, the player who was undaunted by his multi-million pound tag when he joined QPR says he can live with that.
“I didn’t feel the pressure of a big fee on my head and to be honest I still don’t even know to this day the exact fee I moved for, so it wasn’t a big issue. But it was a strange time to go into the club because they wanted me to be a player I probably wasn’t and to add things to my game that weren’t that important in terms of what I do actually bring. So, played in the right system, in the right way, and with a manager who believes in me I can score goals.”
His arrival takes Hearts’ tally of summer signings to two, but Jamie Walker is expected to follow Washington and defender Craig Halkett in the door within the next few days, while a new contract for Steven Naismith remains a virtual formality.