Fourteen goals in two games indicates Hearts are back to their free-scoring best ahead of tonight’s visit to Raith Rovers.
Sam Nicholson explains players are revelling in the freedom granted them by head coach Robbie Neilson. They are also benefiting from Bayern Munich-style training techniques administered by assistant coach Stevie Crawford.
Nicholson and other attackers are encouraged by Neilson and Crawford to work on their creativity and shooting after training at Riccarton – and then apply that practice in matches. After a 10-0 win over Cowdenbeath and a 4-0 defeat of Dumbarton, there is little doubt it is paying dividends.
“In terms of development, I’m not going to improve better anywhere else than here,” says the winger in an exclusive Evening News interview. “The coaching we’re getting is great. As soon as training is finished, we’re getting Stevie Crawford coming up and saying: ‘Do you want to work on anything else?’ So we’re getting extra time to work on our game.
“Stevie will work with the strikers and the wingers will join in. There are certain drills he does. There’s one from Bayern Munich that he does which is in and out of cones, bouncing one-twos and getting shots away. It’s really helped. You saw Billy [King] doing it at the weekend, driving inside and shooting. That’s stuff we’re doing in training and the coaches are telling us we’ve got the freedom to do it in games. It’s really working.
“This is a great place to develop, 100 per cent. For any young player in Scotland, I would say Hearts is probably the best place to be.”
Nicholson and others have drawn interest from clubs in England and abroad during the last year. Sunderland and Real Betis are amongst those who have noted the emergence of skilful young attackers from Riccarton, with Jamie Walker and the aforementioned King chiselled from a similar mould.
However, there is more than enough at Tynecastle right now to keep most players happy. Hearts are closing in on the Scottish Championship title and, depending on results, could even be champions by this time next week. Then comes the prospect of top-flight football next year. Role models are there in abundance too, so opportunities to learn are plentiful.
“If there was interest I’d be flattered but I’m a Hearts player right now and I’m really enjoying it here. I’m just focusing on Hearts. I’d rather concentrate on trying to win this league and progressing as a player,” says Nicholson.
“The management knew that the players they brought in last year have the attitude to take in everything they say. Everyone in the team wants to improve every day.
“You’ve got people like Morgaro Gomis, Neil Alexander, Danny Wilson, who are probably the most professional people I’ve met. They could be at an age where they’re like, ‘I’m just going to get through this training session,’ but they’re still working 100 per cent. It’s good for us younger boys to see that because it means we can’t ever drop our standards.”
If anything, Hearts have reached new heights recently. The 10-0 win over Cowdenbeath was a new club record and the ruthless goalscoring streak which characterised their play earlier in the season appears to have returned.
“We went through a stage where people thought we were scraping out results, but that wasn’t the case,” continued Nicholson. “I thought we were still playing well, we just weren’t scoring as many goals. The last two games have seen us back on the form we hit at the start of the season. Everyone is playing well and keen to get on the scoresheet.
“The management team are just telling us to go out and play with freedom. Obviously we need to stay disciplined tactically but when we have the ball there is a lot of freedom. The manager doesn’t mind if the three players behind the striker – the two wingers and one in the hole – are all swapping positions during a game.
“I can play in all three of those positions but so can Walker and Billy. Osman [Sow] played on the left on Saturday and he’s usually a centre-forward. A number of players in the team can play different positions.
“The players have to be proud of where we are just now but we’re not there yet [in terms of the title]. We still have a couple of games and we need to push through and really go for it. I don’t think anyone thought we would really do this well. We’ve been very professional throughout the season and just took each game one at a time. We haven’t though about where we’ll be in a couple of months or anything like that.
“We do have a good advantage at the top the league but it has been competitive. Some games we’ve won, like beating Dumbarton 4-0 at the weekend, people will look at that and think it was easy but it wasn’t. Dumbarton sat in and tried to frustrate us and did well, to be fair. Every team in this division is good and Raith will be no different tonight.”