Jake Mulraney has finally got his head around what it means to play for a club like Hearts and what it takes to hold down a place in the starting line-up.
In the team for the recent victories over St Johnstone and Kilmarnock, those games signalled the 22-year-old’s first back-to-back starts since August, the Irishman admitting that it has been tougher than he envisaged to adapt to life at one of the nation’s biggest clubs.
“It’s been a positive couple of weeks for me and I’ve been doing a lot on and off the pitch to give me the best chance possible.” That, he says, includes working on his game and his mindset.
“This is the longest it’s taken me to settle into any club due to the size of it. I didn’t realise how big it was around Edinburgh and I haven’t been used to consistently playing in front of 20,000 every week so it took a while to adjust.
“With the fanbase being so big and the fact they aren’t slow to let you know if things aren’t going well, I’ve felt that pressure which I haven’t experienced before.
“John Robertson [his former Inverness Caledonian Thistle manager and Hearts legend] spoke to me of the demands and I know what he’s talking about now but you don’t really know until you experience it.”
Arriving from the Championship club in the summer, a handful of appearances in July and August dwindled to only one first-team game throughout the whole of September and October. Forced to assess his value, rather than throw in the towel, he began to work on his weaknesses.
“There was a moment around October when I was being left out of the team, left out of the squad and I’ve never had that situation before but I needed that kick up the backside to say to myself ‘I need to fix this’,” he added. “It’s a massive moment in my career and definitely something I needed. It’s only made me better and all this extra work off the pitch has made me better and stronger on it.”
While some of the extra graft has been on the training field, he has also addressed the more cerebral part of his game, working with mindset coach John Johnstone, who also helps Hearts team-mate John Souttar, among others.
“I think the mental side of the game is massive,” said Mulraney. “Unfortunately I have only started to realise that now. But this is the strongest I’ve felt mentally in ages. I know how to cope and deal with certain situations.”
The Irishman is also clear about what is required to maintain regular first-team involvement. Growing up a fan of players such as Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo, he says there is still scope for their attacking wizardry but, having quizzed manager Craig Levein he believes there may be greater merit in trying to emulate David Beckham instead.
“Those were the ones I liked to watch,” he said. “I loved the tricks. That hasn’t drifted out of my game. But I think David Beckham just used to whip it in every time.
“The manager told me he wants his wide players to get balls into the box, consistently and as well as I can. It’s about simplifying my game. I don’t put pressure on myself to get past the player, I just look to get myself a yard to put in the cross and it’s working.
“They showed some footage of myself and I don’t really need coaching to do the extras that are needed. I just need a bag of balls! Shift it, cross; shift it, cross… I’ve simplified my game a bit more. Rather than putting pressure on myself to beat the man all the time.”
David Vanecek has shifted 4kg of deadwood and will be in this evening’s squad for the match against Livingston, while the work of coach Mikey Williams and medical staff means that Uche Ikpeazu could also feature, while Peter Haring is only a week behind, according to Levein.
“Uche trained [on Monday] for the first time with the squad and looked really good. I don’t know if I can twist his arm to go on the bench. It might be too soon.”
But Christophe Berra, Steven Naismith and Souttar all vindicated that leap of faith when they made their comebacks.
“It used to be that they would get a couple of reserve games, playing 45 minutes in one and then an hour but this seems to be working quite well,” Levein added. “Just about everybody is back a lot sooner than we thought.
“Part of that is Mikey doing this last part between them being injury free and being ready to play. He’s really good at it. He solely focuses on that and I think the players are returning in really good shape and able to go in quicker than they normally would.
“Nobody wants injuries, particularly to the players we’ve had injured. But to get them back quickly and in good shape is critical to us.”