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What path does Walker take from here?

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Back in July, when Jamie Walker emerged from the bench during Hearts’ final Premier Sports Cup group match at home to Inverness, he took just ten minutes to break the deadlock after a comparatively laboured effort from his teammates in the preceding 65 minutes. 

Ahead of the club’s return to the top flight, Walker’s goal, though futile in saving Hearts from unseeded ignominy in the next round of the cup, was nonetheless a timely reminder of the game-winning qualities he has shown at various points throughout his time in maroon. Timely in the sense that it showed a player with something left to offer his formative club, despite his second spell having not panned out the way he or the supporters would have liked it to. 

Five months later, in a different stadium against different opposition, the situation was almost identical. Having watched his colleagues draw a blank in front of goal for the best part of an hour at Dens on Saturday, Walker was again thrown into the mix; again he struck the winning goal.

Walker’s knack of breathing life into an otherwise stagnant game come as no surprise to any Hearts fan – he’s done it on numerous occasions for the club – but there was added significance to his most recent match-winning cameo, which bookended a frustrating spell for the player since that goal against Inverness. 

Before his surprise introduction at a fog-consumed Dens Park, that goal looked as though it would be his last in a maroon jersey, given his involvement since July had amounted to just three additional appearances from the bench for a combined total of an hour. Of the 18 league games that preceded the Dundee trip, he made the match day squad in just ten. With his contract set to expire in the summer and the likes of St Johnstone and Livingston reportedly interested in him, it seemed almost inevitable that Walker’s time as a Hearts player would end next month.

It may still. At the age of 28, Walker is in what should be the peak years of his career and any self-respecting professional footballer is unlikely to want to spend those watching from the dugout or stands as often as he has this term. Nobody would begrudge him a fresh start elsewhere, though it remains to be seen if his impact on Saturday prompts much of a rethink by Robbie Neilson as to his future involvement.

After the match, Neilson spoke about his desire to keep Walker beyond January, pointing to the form of those higher up the pecking as the reason for his prolonged absence:

“You know when you put Jamie on, he’s going to give you everything, so I’m just delighted for the kid. He’s not played for a while and to get the winner in front of the Hearts fans is great. Jamie has found it hard to get in because the players that have been in those positions have been playing really, really well. He’s just had to bide his time.”

There is a sense that Neilson is being somewhat economical with the truth here. For a while it looked as though Walker’s personal purgatory was simply a mark of how far this Hearts squad had evolved, with Neilson and Joe Savage adding greater quality and depth to the ranks at the start of the season. However, when you consider how Hearts’ first choice attacking players have fluffed their lines with increasing regularity this season, you can see why Walker’s mooted departure rankles with those who feel he hasn’t been given a proper chance this season. After all, he has produced similar output to his colleagues in a fraction of the game time.

Whether or not Walker is the answer to Hearts’ attacking issues is a topic that divides opinion within the Hearts support. His biggest advocates point to a service that has so far produced 239 appearances and over 50 competitive goals – a feat only 36 Hearts players have achieved in the club’s history – as evidence of his capability. His critics suggest that his time in maroon (and his career to date) could have been even more prosperous than that. Few have any doubts about his actual talent, but his form, fitness and focus have all been questioned at various stages in the past.

And yet, as Saturday demonstrated, no matter what the setback, there’s always an air of unfinished business with Walker in a Hearts jersey. His reaction to the goal, the beeline he made for the fans, the acclaim he received from the stands and on social media afterwards, it all spoke to a mutual love that exists only between supporters and “one of their own”. Is either party ready to move on just yet?

Ultimately, the decision to stay or go rests with the player himself. Although Walker has intimated that he would like to stay, it is unlikely that he will be content with hanging around to play the role of impact sub for the next six months, but despite Neilson’s assurances to the contrary, there doesn’t appear to have been much trust in his capacity to play a more prominent starting role this season.

There will be a couple more opportunties over the festive period for Walker to impress should he receive the nod. If not, and a January departure does materialise, getting it up Dundee Football Club is not a bad way for any Hearts player to sign off.

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