Anyone who has cast their glance towards the Tynecastle Park side this season may well have come for Craig Gordon or Stephen Kingsley but stayed for the team’s creative spark.
It’s obvious McKay is a “very talented” individual, the way he lights up and decorates a game. The manner in which he moves with the ball, the stop and start, the way he takes care of it before delivering one of those decisive passes. It is like looking through a kaleidoscope. Dazzling and colourful.
Yet, the “very talented” description, has not always been there. No one knows that better than former Rangers manager Warburton. In fact, when he took over at Ibrox in 2015 he was issued with a note of caution. Essentially warned not to expect much, if anything, from McKay.
Rewind seven years and the then 20-year-old had returned to Ibrox from an unsuccessful loan spell at Raith Rovers. He had not left a favourable impression amongst the fans of the Fifers across 25 appearances.
Warburton, along with Rangers legend David Weir, had arrived at a club which was at a low ebb following an unsuccessful attempt at promotion from the Championship. The squad needed a whole lot of TLC.
“We came in and had nine players on the first day,” the QPR manager told The Scotsman. “We got Barrie over to make up numbers and the feedback was that he had been at Raith Rovers, hadn’t been that successful, hadn’t been that great. It was very negative feedback on Barrie.
"I think within 10 minutes David and I were very, very impressed. Technically so sound, so strong, clever. He was very bright and stayed with us for the entire pre-season, played the first game and never looked back from there.
“He was a clever player and reminded us of the old-fashioned Scottish winger. Those jinking skills, playing off both feet, acceleration over three to five yards and an end product to what he was doing as well. He’s just a very, very talented player.
"It was the case of giving him the environment to thrive and use his obvious attributes.”
McKay, described as “quiet and unassuming”, played nearly 100 games for Rangers across two seasons, helping them win promotion and defeat Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-final, before they reestablished themselves in the top-flight.
It was during that spell where he was given the platform to express himself, dovetailing so effectively with former Hearts left-back Lee Wallace and the emergence of an almost owl-like quality of possessing a 360-degree view of the pitch. It was why Warburton took him to Nottingham Forest – the start of a mixed and at times difficult four-year spell in English football.
"Barrie needs to feel loved, he needs to know you trust him, you’ve got his back,” he said. “All the basic human elements, Barrie needs the confidence to go and play and not worry about a mistake because there is no doubt about his technical ability, the explosive pace that he has, his end product.
"He thrived at Rangers, look at the goal he scored in the semi-final against Celtic, to pick up the ball, jink, lose a player of quality and score from 25-30 yards. He’s a very, very talented boy. He struggled down south but when he finds a home where he feels he is trusted I think he can thrive, and that’s the case at Hearts right now.
“His ability, jinking Scottish winger, Jimmy Johnstone-like sometimes in what he did. He has an end product to him, he thrives on taking on defenders and forming relationships with people like Lee Wallace.
“He needs to be in a format where he is encouraged to play forward as a first thought and encouraged to drive at defenders as a first thought, encouraged to be confident in 1v1s. If you are told to sit back and don’t lose the ball, don’t make a mistake… Barrie needs to have that confidence and environment like all attacking players.
"You know he is going to make mistakes, you know he might not have a good day at the office but seven times out of ten, he’s taking on a defender, he’s beating him, he’s getting to the bye-line and there is an end product to what he does.”
Lee Wallace effect
His attacking output has been hugely impressive for Hearts. He is second in the Premiership for assists but leads the way in through balls, key passes and smart passes.
The other side of his game is underrated, however. He has won the ball back in the final third the sixth most times. It’s a defensive awareness which has been helped by former Hearts player Wallace, who is being managed once more by Warburton.
"He had someone like Lee behind him who is very experienced," he said. “You see it down here at QPR, he talks continuously with the players, helps them out enormously.
"In terms of giving him confidence, talking him through games, talking about his positional sense, when to come inside, when to get on the half-turn, when to set and spin, when to come short to go long. All of these various aspects of the game, defensively, getting narrow, getting out, stopping the forward ball, Lee would have been speaking to him relentlessly and Barrie was a fantastic recipient of that and really benefited.”
For Warburton, there is “no doubt” he has what it takes to make the step to the international fold. But to do so needs to produce consistently at Hearts, starting with Saturday’s Scottish Cup semi-final against Hibs.
"I hope very much that he can grace the international stage but there are some good players ahead of him so he has got to earn that by being consistent with his displays with Hearts week in, week out,” he said.