“The difference is night and day. I feel really good” – Gary Mackay-Steven is raring to go ahead of clash with former club

Gary Mackay-Steven met the media ahead of Hearts’ first league match of the season against Celtic. Jamie McIntosh reports. 

Photo Credit – SNS Group

After a relatively uneventful season in the Championship, Hearts are back in the top flight of Scottish football and what a mouth-watering tie to kick off their new campaign, as they welcome Celtic to Tynecastle.

Hearts are planning on drafting in new signing Beni Baningime to the matchday squad. The midfielder penned a three-year deal with the Tynecastle side on Thursday and could make his debut tonight. 

Another player looking forward to his first full season in maroon is Gary Mackay-Steven. The winger returned to Scotland in January following a season in the MLS with New York City, signing a deal with the Jambos until 2023. 

30-year-old Mackay-Steven once wore the green and white of tonight’s opposition and after watching them being knocked out of the Champions League by Danish side Midtjylland, he is looking forward to having a crack at his former club:

“It’s massive, we’re all looking forward to the start of the season, but to start against Celtic is huge. It’s a big game for both sides and we’re relishing it.

“This is what I envisaged when I signed. This is where Hearts should be, these games coming up are exciting and I want to be part of that. The build-up has been good, so has our pre-season, but it’s the real stuff now and we’re going to enjoy it.

“I did watch them [Celtic]. I thought they did well. On another day they’d have won the game 2-0, but they missed chances and after Midtjylland scored the goal, the game changed. It went to extra time and they were unlucky, but there was still a lot of positive play. 

“A lot of top players have left them. They’ve now got a new manager with new ideas, and it’ll take time before he gets his ideas across, but I still know a lot of the boys there and they’ve still got a lot of quality in their side. 

“We know it’s going to be a tough game. It doesn’t come much tougher than Celtic, so we won’t be underestimating them, that’s for sure.”

After positive discussions, Hearts have been granted permission to distribute a further 737 tickets to season ticket holders, taking tonight’s total attendance to 5,272. 

After playing in front of no fans in the Championship last season, Mackay-Steven is looking forward to sampling the famous Tynecastle atmosphere, this time as a home player:

“It’s massive getting the fans back, it makes such a difference having supporters in, they create an atmosphere here that you relish as a player. Personally, I can’t wait until we get full crowds.

“I enjoyed coming here [as an away player], but I could see why some found it intimidating, because the fans are right on top of you, and I can’t wait to experience what it’s like when you’re playing for them.”

As is often the case with January signings, players can often struggle to hit the ground running. For Mackay-Steven, it was solely a fitness issue, and he did improve as the season went on. 

Now after having a full pre-season in Gorgie, the Scot feels much better than he did six months ago and can’t wait to get started:

“The difference is night and day. I feel really good now. The Championship is a tough league, and I wasn’t in my peak condition when I came in, but now having had a pre-season, I think every player will tell you it’s so important. You come in, get your work done, get the managers ideas of how he wants to play and get to know the boys around you. We’ve got a great changing room here and personally I feel really comfortable.”

Despite winning the Championship last season, the style of play adopted by Robbie Neilson received its fair share of criticism, however Mackay-Steven insisted that it’s a tough league and Hearts were never going to steamroll teams every week:

“I think sometimes from the outside looking in, people think you play for Hearts, you should be beating these lesser teams by three or four goals every week, but it never works like that – football’s not like that.

“I think we’re stronger for the experience last season and now we can look ahead in a league we feel we should be playing in, but it’s up to us now. We know how good a team we are, so hopefully we can impose our game against Celtic.”

It doesn’t take a genius to work out Celtic’s defence is currently vulnerable and with Mackay-Steven, Liam Boyce and Josh Ginnelly likely to line up as Hearts’ front three, one would imagine the Celtic backline will once again be tested.

“We know their strengths, but we want to focus more on ourselves,” Mackay-Steven explained. 

“We need to soak up the pressure that comes with playing for a club like Hearts – you need to cope with that and expect to win every game, because it’s a massive club. You represent a massive club and a massive fanbase which has expectations, but in-house we’re no different. We’ve got expectations too, so come Saturday, we’re going out to win the game.

“I keep my own targets personal. I want to contribute in every game though, whether it’s with goals or assists. I want to create, be a nuisance for the other team and make a difference in every game.” 

Mackay-Steven will face four of his former clubs this season – having started off as a youngster at Ross County, he also featured for Dundee United, Celtic and Aberdeen before arriving at Tynecastle. The winger believes his ventures have made him a better player:

“I think you always evolve as a player. I’ve played in different places under different managers, and I’ve learnt something from all of them, wherever I’ve been, so I’m definitely a better player for all my experiences, but I’m happy and comfortable here at this club and we can’t wait to show what we’re all about this season.

“I had a lot of highs and lows at Celtic, but that happens everywhere, football is a rollercoaster. I don’t dwell on the past, but yeah, I had fond memories there.”

It probably goes without saying that if Hearts are going to get a result against Celtic then Craig Gordon will need to be his usual reliable self in goals. Celtic may have a makeshift defence but going forward they still have a lot of quality. 

Hearts will be aware of this though and Mackay-Steven spoke highly of the new Hearts skipper Gordon, who he played alongside at Celtic:

“He’s one of the best. He was great when I played with him before and he’s been great since I’ve been here. With the captaincy now and the clean sheet record, he’s a great player to have in your team.”

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