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Postman and part-time footballer rejected by both Norwich City and Peterborough United. Conor Washington’s progress from Royal Mail’s street beat to international striker is one long tale of hard graft, grit and defiance. Which means Hearts have signed someone grateful for the opportunity and determined to maximise it.
Standing in the sunshine outside Tynecastle Park yesterday afternoon, Washington recalled his unorthodox route into professional football. He admitted not doing himself justice last season at Sheffield United and stressed the need to make up for lost time after signing a two-year Hearts contract.
Just seven years ago, he was pounding the pavements of Cambridgeshire from five o’clock in the morning on his postman’s round while playing part-time at St Ives Town. He never experienced youth academy football having been turned down for an apprenticeship by both Norwich and Peterborough. Now 27, this player has had to earn his career the hard way, which may well be to his advantage.
From St Ives to Newport County, then Peterborough (ironically), Queens Park Rangers and Sheffield United, Washington has fought his way to a decent level of the game. Not to mention 20 caps and four goals for Northern Ireland. He spoke with refreshing honesty about his desire to succeed at Hearts, and how it is fuelled by vital experience of the real world gained during those cold mornings delivering letters and parcels.
“I’ll never shake that off, will I? It was a good background to come from as it means I appreciate every day’s training and I still have the hunger to go out and play,” he said.
“My round was between Cambridge and Peterborough, where I was playing non-league at the time. It was interesting. I would get up early on a Saturday and then do my round and then head off and play non-league in the afternoon. It was crazy looking back. It sounds surreal but it has kept me grounded and gave me a hunger to go out and play.
“The way I came into the game is a bit of a strange tale. I didn’t play any academy football. All I wanted to do is play football and that’s still the same. The financial aspects of it have been great but I’m in football to play games on a Saturday. It has been soul-destroying not to be able to do that.”
He made 16 appearances without scoring for Sheffield United last season and his 12-month contract was not renewed. Had new terms been offered, Washington would probably have refused due to the lack of game time. The Hearts assistant Austin MacPhee used his dual role as a Northern Ireland coach to convince the striker that a better future lay waiting in Edinburgh.
“Austin has been speaking to me at international get-togethers. I’ve also spoken with Michael Smith and Aaron Hghes, who have told me it’s a really good club and great to be a part of. I wanted to be a part of it. Austin has been on my case since he found out I was going to be a free transfer in the summer.”
There are no regrets about leaving Bramall Lane despite United gaining promotion to England’s Premier League. “With the amount of games I played and then them bringing other lads in on loan, I assumed I would be leaving,” said Washington. “Even if they had offered me something I probably wouldn’t have taken it as it was a really tough year, personally.
“It was great to be part of the team but I played only 600 minutes of football and it’s not enough. I’ve always played games wherever I’ve been and that’s what I want to get back to doing.
“We joked that it has given me an extra year in my career but I want to make up for lost time. I haven’t given a great account of myself over the last 18 months to two years. I’m glad to be given this opportunity by the manager and Austin to change that. Austin can see the hunger is still there. The fire in the belly was back over the last two international games.”
Anyone who witnessed Washington’s game-changing intevention for Northern Ireland in Tallinn earlier this month would agree. Michael O’Neill found his side 1-0 down at half-time in a must-win European Championship qualifier and decided to introduce Washington from the substitutes’ bench. The injection of energy soon paid dividends.
The striker began causing havoc among the Estonian defence with his movement and hustling before scoring the equaliser on 77 minutes – albeit via a slight deflection from Josh Magennis. The winner came from Magennis three minutes later.
It is that industry Hearts will look to utilise during the season ahead. Although Washington could have been representing Scotland rather that Northern Ireland. Born in Chatham, Kent, his mother is a Scot from just across the River Forth.
“I could have played for Scotland as my mum was born in Dumfermline. My agent didn’t have any ins with Scotland but managed to get me in with Northern Ireland and it has been great for me,” said the player.
Having some international colleagues already at Tynecastle should mean he settles fairly quickly. He is a low-risk signing as a free transfer who is also a current internationalist with experience of the English Championship. There will be a sense of expectation from the Hearts support as they welcome their new No.9, but nothing like Washington endured in the past.
Queens Park Rangers reportedly paid between £2.5million and £3m for him in January 2016 after he scored 33 goals in 94 games for Peterborough. That made him a fairly high-profile signing in London’s White City.
“If I’m honest, I didn’t feel the pressure of a big fee on my head,” he said. “To tell you the truth, I still don’t know to this day the exact fee I moved for so it wasn’t a big issue. It was a strange time to go into the club because they wanted me to be a player I probably wasn’t and to add things to my game that weren’t that important in terms of what I do actually bring. Played in the right system in the right way, and with a manager who believes in me, I can score goals.”