Neil McCann: Jamie Walker now has freedom to roam at Hearts

Jamie Walker celebrates his first goal against Rangers last week. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
Jamie Walker celebrates his first goal against Rangers last week. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
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Ian Cathro has come through a difficult period. Questions won’t stop being asked about his worth as Hearts head coach.

You wouldn’t get any medals for being one of the first to say ‘I called it way back, I told you it would not work’ if it doesn’t work for Ian, but let’s give the man a chance. I want to see what this guy’s ideas are on football, how will he cope in the long term? How does he change a game that isn’t going for him with tactics or substitutions. I like what I’ve seen in the last two games, but there’s a long way to go before I make a judgment.

His fortunes have changed largely due to the signing of Esmael Goncalves. I was immediately impressed with him in last week’s victory over Rangers. He has added a totally different dimension to how Hearts can set out their stall. The Portuguese striker is allowing them to be more versatile. It’s almost a case of going back to the future.

In that 4-1 win over Rangers, Cathro played a 4-4-2 formation. I am not sure if that’s his preference. New coaching methods and ideas seem to be hinged around 4-2-3-1, a revered formation these days but one I personally don’t favour.

It’s ironic that the poster-boy for new, innovative footballing ideas is actually investing faith in such a traditional set-up as 4-4-2. But Hearts look all the better for it, giving them the edge, I feel, going into this weekend’s Scottish Cup tie with Hibernian.

So much more seems possible with two ‘up top’, particularly with Goncalves leading the line. He didn’t score against Rangers though he did against Motherwell at the weekend. But it’s as much about what he does for his team-mates.

The player he had most influence on, certainly against Rangers, was Jamie Walker, who has become a talisman, a go-to man for Hearts. He is improving rapidly. You can tell he feels within himself he is becoming a big player.

Walker is relishing the responsibility and looks to me like he is beginning to really understand the game. He doesn’t see himself as a young boy anymore. But prior to Goncalves, the pressure on Walker to make something happen seemed considerable. If he did not get Hearts something, they seemed to struggle. But with Hearts playing with two up front, he has been given a freer role. He is not playing wide on the right or left, he is coming in off the wide positions. And it’s a difficult thing for an opposition defence to pick up if a winger comes inside.

Goncalves is the game changer so far. Of Cathro’s nine signings, he is the significant one for me. Even though he is not very tall, he is so powerful. With both him and Bjorn Johnsen, it’s almost been like the classic big striker, small striker partnership. That said, Johnsen could do a lot more. From what I’ve seen, he needs to be far stronger. But the pair’s willingness to run into the channels means Walker can roam more. The freedom he has in advanced positions is allowing him to get into more scoring areas.

Walker is a totally different player to what I was. I was a winger, yes, and I could play through the middle, I loved the freedom of doing that.

But essentially the teams I played for stuck to quite a structured shape, even at Rangers. At Hearts, certainly, I was an out-and-out winger. I loved to come inside when I could. But essentially I saw myself as someone to give ammunition to the strikers, whereas I do not see Walker as that kind of winger.

I have played in the three big Scottish city derbies, in Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow. They are all special. The Old Firm fixture stands alone but the Edinburgh derby, particularly those at Tynecastle, stick out too, because the stands are close to the pitch. For a winger especially, it was inspiring.

One of my first ones was at Tynecastle, when I scored in a 1-0 win 20 years ago. It was a soaking wet day. There wasn’t much in the game at all.

It was a fantastic experience made even more memorable by scoring the winner late on.

I have so many good pictures throughout my career and that’s one of the best. Someone caught me celebrating, there are veins popping out my neck! I was celebrating like that because I’d been getting some quite heavy stick from the Hibs supporters. It was a very special moment captured in a photograph, and it’s a memory I treasure.

I predict a Hearts win this Sunday as well. But again I imagine it will be a narrow victory. Jason Cummings is so important for Hibs. He has to play. There are times when he goes missing but with his goal threat, he is pivotal for Neil Lennon’s side. His header at Tynecastle last season in the 2-2 game flipped the tie on its head.

He annoys people with his confidence, opposition supporters dislike him, but that’s because he’s a threat. Aaron Hughes, who I have been impressed with so far in the centre of the Hearts defence, will need to snuff him out. If my old team are able to do that then it will go a long way towards helping them win the game.

l Sunday’s Scottish Cup fifth round tie between Hearts and Hibernian will be shown live on Sky Sports 2 HD from 12pm.