It was just after the 75th minute in Paisley on Saturday when Heart of Midlothian won back possession and broke forward through Aidan Denholm. The ball eventually arrived at the feet of Barrie McKay. On as a second-half substitute, he had one thing on his mind: Cut inside and feed a pass through to Kenneth Vargas.

With two St Mirren players bearing down on him, McKay emerged with the ball thanks to a pirouette. For a split-second, there was anticipation of one of those trademark passes in behind the backline to release a team-mate. Keanu Baccus recovered to exert enough pressure so that the pass didn't come to fruition.

For much of the season, Hearts fans have been robbed of the mercurial talents of Barrie McKay. The ability to see and execute passes that few in the league can replicate. There'd have been more than a few fans in the away end on Saturday who took a pause, a deep breath when the pass seemed to open up.

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The 29-year-old split opinion among the club's support last season. The critical view has been of a player who doesn't produce in the big games or has a tendency to play on the periphery of matches when not creating. Yet, it will be interesting whether it is a case of absence making the heart grow fonder, or, at the very least, his absence increasing the appreciation of his skills.

One of the common complaints this campaign has been the lack of risk-taking in possession, that final pass in a sequence, the awareness to spot a team-mate better placed. There can be little doubt about the creative qualities he can inject into the team, into games. Yutaro Oda, Kenneth Vargas and Alan Forrest have often played wide this campaign. All three are quick, want to run with or onto the ball down the flanks or in behind. All three would benefit from McKay's presence and his vision.

Thirteen months ago, McKay sat in the club's Oriam training base and discussed perceptions of his form openly. There was a view held that he had regressed following a fantastic 2021/22 season. During that campaign he was a playmaking machine, putting up numbers that competed with or bettered the likes of Jota, David Turnbull and Matt O'Riley, as well as James Tavernier and Ryan Kent.

McKay spoke of 20,000 managers in the stands and felt that critics "don't see the full picture".

Then head coach Robbie Neilson, sitting down once McKay had spoken, joked that it was the most he had heard the player speak. It was clear, however, that McKay felt strongly about the perception. 

"I still have a fair few assists and I am still helping the team but everyone looks at the negative," he said. "I am my own biggest critic and if I don’t have a good game I will say it. I don’t need other people to tell me I have played well or not, I know what I am capable of and if I don’t achieve it I know it.

“This season teams have doubled or trebled up on me so I have less space. But if I have less space then someone else, ideally, should have more to impact the game."

Simply looking at the bare facts there was a regression from what was a fantastic 2021/22 campaign (the same could be said about the team in general). It is clear from the stats below that his attacking output and influence in the final third decreased. And significantly so in some cases. But the stats also perhaps back up his point that he had less pace, dropping deeper to get involved. The increase in deep progressions (passes, dribbles and carries into the final third) as well as the number of carries and dribbles indicates he was operating further from goal.


But even with the team sauntering to third spot in the Premiership this campaign, there can be little doubt that he has been missed. Now, rather than looking back, it should be a case of looking forward. Of putting the building blocks in place to reach those first-season heights.

Hearts head coach Steven Naismith is well aware of his talents. Well aware that he could still provide vital contributions between now and the end of the season.

"He can because, on raw ability, Baz is in the top category of anybody at the club," he said. "A guy like that coming back in will be good for the squad and good for him personally. Going back to competition for places, everybody needs to play well to stay in the team."

The 2-1 win at St Mirren was just his sixth league appearance of the season, ninth in total. It is a campaign that has been ravaged by injury. It started with recovery from an ankle issue. Then came not one but two PCL injuries. Three letters McKay will hope to never see together again. 

Naismith expressed sympathy for what he has gone through this campaign. After suffering his first PCL against PAOK in the Europa Conference League qualifier, McKay took all the necessary steps to get back in a good place. Only for the same injury to occur but in a completely different manner to the first one.

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There was even an understanding that this season could perhaps be cast to the side, written off, forgotten by the player, attention turned to pre-season instead, having not had a proper pre-season this summer past.

That's not been the case. Perhaps aided by knowledge and experience gained from his first PCL rehab.

"That's the frustrating part," Naismith said. "Baz is now an experienced player and a leader. His day-to-day routine is all really good. The frustration is that he does all that, then gets an injury which sets him back for months. What chance have you got?

"He has been really strong. With this second injury, I've been surprised at how hard he has worked. When I did my second knee injury, I was really deflated. To have two really bad injuries that close together, there could be that element of: 'I'm writing this season off.' He is not. He has been the opposite. I would say he has worked harder this time than he did at the start, which tells you all you need to know about his character."

McKay has come off the bench for the last two games as he builds back toward full-match sharpness. While no restrictions on game time, the coaching staff are managing the playmaker carefully to ensure no further injuries.

"His performances in training have been good and he is getting back to sharpness, so he is available for selection," Naismith said. "If we think he's ready to start then we will start him. If not, we will wait. There isn't any condition on his minutes.

"This season has been really frustrating for him. The injuries haven't been avoidable, they have just happened and they have set him back twice. Hopefully, he can contribute enough from now till the summer that he looks back on it as a worthwhile season through the hard times."