Why Hearts ace Jamie Walker is primed to be the team's No.10 and his 'delight' at Robbie Neilson's return

The ball was worked well down the right-hand side at an empty and somewhat forlorn Tynecastle Park. Jamie Brandon to Elliot Frear, the winger providing a crafty dummy to allow the defender to run on to his own pass.

Brandon got down the wing and around the Partick Thistle defence before fizzing a cross into the centre of the box. Craig Wighton checked his run, but the ball rolled agonisingly past him out of reach.

Breaking into the box behind him, however, was Jamie Walker.

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With the No.10 on his back, the attacker slammed the ball past Jamie Sneddon with the ease of switching on a light to give his side a 1-0 lead.

A pre-season friendly it may have been, but it was a reminder of the player who broke into the first-team before becoming a key asset during Robbie Neilson’s first spell in charge at Tynecastle.

Clearly back to full fitness, or as close a professional football player can be, he was sharp, alert and a constant menace in the final third, drifting between defenders, making those runs from behind the midfield which make it so hard for opponents to mark.

Walker the free spirit

Judging on pre-season and the Betfred Cup, it wouldn’t be remiss to suggest he is ahead of Steven Naismith for that No.10 role behind Liam Boyce when the league campaign gets underway.

It was a frustrating season for Walker last campaign. Picture: SNSIt was a frustrating season for Walker last campaign. Picture: SNS
It was a frustrating season for Walker last campaign. Picture: SNS

Naismith is finely tuned into the machinations of a game, where he is meant to be and where team-mates should be in relation. Watching and listening to him is fascinating, as if he is simultaneously taking part in and controlling a game of human chess.

Walker operates differently. His game is visceral. A free spirit, floating to where he feels there will be something for him, before springing into action. It can frustrate management and team-mates with regards to his positioning, but it is one of the concessions required for him to provide those game defining or match-winning moments.

Both played as attacking midfielders against Inverness CT in the first competitive game of the season. It didn’t quite click that evening as the Highlanders were compact and deep, nullifying space centrally.

Yet, it was Walker who looked more likely to find the combination.

Jamie Walker is "delighted" to be working under Robbie Neilson once more. Picture: SNSJamie Walker is "delighted" to be working under Robbie Neilson once more. Picture: SNS
Jamie Walker is "delighted" to be working under Robbie Neilson once more. Picture: SNS

Tip-top condition

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The player himself, however, is open to playing in any of the three positions behind the lone striker in Neilson’s 4-2-3-1 system.

“I’m feeling probably up there with the best I’ve felt,” Walker said ahead of tonight’s clash with Forfar in the Betfred Cup. “The two Betfred Cup games have been my first 90 minutes, so there’s still a wee bit to go fitness-wise.

“I don’t mind playing in any of the front three and I wouldn’t mind playing in the middle.

“But I’ve played mostly off the front in pre-season and I’ve done quite well and scored a few goals, so hopefully that’s where I’ll be playing."

The penalty he netted in the 1-0 win over Inverness CT was his 45th for the club. Of those, 26 have been scored under Neilson’s management.

Walker evolved under the former Hearts right-back, from a flashy winger who drifted infield to a central threat where late runs into the box to meet crosses or goals from on and around the area became the norm.

Therefore it is understandable that the 27-year-old is “delighted” Neilson has returned after a difficult first season back playing under Craig Levein and Daniel Stendel when not in peak condition.

Back to his best

“We’ve had a longer pre-season than usual and I think he’s a bit more relaxed than he was the first time around,” Walker said.

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“I don’t know if that’s because it was his first job the last time and he wanted to do well.

“It’s a similar feel to the last time. It’s probably not as attractive a league as the last time when Hibs and Rangers were there, but it’s where we are and it’s what we need to deal with now.

“The last time was his first job and he was eager to get off to a good start, which he did. But more around the training he’s a bit more relaxed.

“As a manager, you’ve got a way you want to play and, from the first time around, he’ll still have similar ways he wants to do stuff.

“The boys have bought into the ideas he has and hopefully we can put them onto the pitch.

“I think that’s clear for everyone to see,” he added when asked if he agreed that his best form has been under Neilson. “The Championship season the last time and the form I carried into the season back in the Premier when we qualified for Europe was probably the best I’ve played in my career.

“Hopefully I can get back to there again.”

Goal target

Walker will have the experience of Naismith around him to guide him, plus ammunition from wingers Frear, Jordan Roberts and Josh Ginnelly to help him reach his goal target, even if he is unsure if he will be kept on penalties after his late miss against Cowdenbeath.

“It’s massive,” he said of the wide men. “That’s what we’ve probably lacked for a few years now - pace and width.

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“You can see they bring that to the team and hopefully if they can get the crosses into the box then I can get on the end of them.

“I put expectations on myself. I’ve scored a lot of goals for this football club and it’s something I pride myself on.

“Every season I have targets I want to hit and hopefully I’ll reach them.

“Usually I target 15 goals or double figures, but with only 27 games this season I’ll just see where it goes - and hopefully I can stay on penalties and get a few more.”

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