European nights are helping Hearts winger Jamie Walker make up for lost time. After missing more than three months of last season with a knee injury which still causes pain, the winger was back in rampant form against Infonet in Tallinn.
Walker’s pinpoint set-piece delivery was a standout feature in Hearts’ 4-2 Europa League qualifying win. He helped create two goals for Igor Rossi and one each for Callum Paterson and Alim Ozturk. The result secured a second-round tie with Birkirkara of Malta on a 6-3 aggregate.
The European experience is a welcome tonic for the 23-year-old and he is desperate for it to last. Knee surgery last December forced him to sit out weeks and weeks of Hearts’ successful first season back in the top flight. Pain from the area still affects him after training and games, but he will be a key figure next week in Malta.
“You never want to be injured,” he admitted. “You just need to work hard to get back in and European nights more than make up for it. There is definitely more to come from me as I am still lacking a bit of fitness in general, but I am getting fitter and stronger.
“As a player, you want to be playing in Europe in the big games. Hopefully we can progress even further and draw a few bigger ties. In Europe, we need to be clinical and when the chances come you have to take them. The further you go, the harder the games are going to get.
“I wasn’t aware that we were the first Hearts team to score four goals in an away tie in Europe. We were the favourites to get through the tie and we’ve delivered. The two early goals put us in a great position and we are delighted to be in the next round.”
Birkirkara, with a selection of players from Serbia, Croatia and South America, will offer a stiffer test than Infonet. “I know they took West Ham all the way to penalties last season but I haven’t seen them or watched them,” said Walker.
“We have heard Birkirkara are quite defensive and will try and hit on the counter. The Estonians did that at Tynecastle and were good on the counter. We will be well prepared and we will look forward to it.”
For Walker, a major part of the preparation is hitting free-kicks and corners in training. It paid off in Tallinn. “When we were training before the game I was hitting a lot of free-kicks and corners. Practice makes perfect as I made four good deliveries and we scored four goals.
“I think I can still improve but I helped set up four goals from four set-pieces. Over a season, it can add up to a few assists. I have never played in game where I have set up four goals. I’m delighted to help the boys through to the next round. The only thing that was missing was a goal for myself.”
He encountered some tough physical treatment as Infonet tried to shackle him. Ofosu Appiah, the Ghanaian defender, was particularly ruthless with his challenges.
“I think being physical is part of the game but some of the tackles were a bit harsh. I was playing quite well and there was a few bad challenges,” Walker added. “I was surprised that one of them was just a yellow card.
“I thought Appiah’s tackle was a red card as he came in with both feet off the ground. He also cemented Jack at the end and I think the referee felt sorry for the guy and let him stay on. That was another yellow-card offence and he had already been booked.”