For many players, pre-season is not a time of year they particularly look forward to, featuring gruelling double (even triple) training sessions full of hard running, with friendly matches geared towards honing match sharpness.
Hearts striker Gary Oliver however, seems to relish the build up to the new season and is developing something of a habit in terms of finding the net as Robbie Neilson prepares his squad ahead of their return to Scottish football’s top flight.
Oliver, 19, has already struck twice in the Jam Tarts’ three pre-season friendlies. The young striker netted the opener as Neilson’s men concluded last week’s trip to Dublin with a 4-2 win over Shelbourne, and he was first off the mark again on Tuesday night in a comfortable 2-0 victory against Ray MacKinnon’s Raith Rovers at Stark’s Park.
It was a similar story this time last year as Hearts were readying themselves for what turned out to be a highly successful sojourn in the Scottish Championship. Oliver netted four times in pre-season fixtures against Dinamo Bucuresti, East Fife and St Johnstone to establish himself firmly in Neilson’s mind as a viable option up front.
While Oliver enjoyed more than a touch of fortune for his goal in Kirkcaldy – the ball looping in over Scott Cuthbert via a big deflection off Kyle Benedictus – his overall performance was one of a player surging with confidence ahead of his first real crack at the Ladbrokes Premiership.
“It was decent to get a goal on Tuesday night and the win was even better” he told the Evening News. “It’s all about fitness just now but it’s a bonus to score. Funnily enough last season I scored a few goals in pre-season – I think four or five. Playing in pre-season seems to be a good luck charm for me! Hopefully I can just kick on and take this form into the league campaign.
“It’s definitely an opportunity to prove something as one of the younger members of the squad. We’re all getting a chance and hopefully the gaffer will see that I’m scoring goals and give me a chance in the Premiership.”
A continuation of his current performances will do Oliver no harm, but the teenager is realistic enough to know that he plays in a position in which Robbie Neilson is not short of numbers. Osman Sow was last season’s joint top scorer (along with the now departed Genero Zeefuik) with 12 goals and is likely to start the season leading the line for Neilson. Powerful Spanish striker Juanma Delgado arrived last month in addition to Gavin Reilly, who impressed for Queen of the South last season, outscoring his Tynecastle counterparts with 15 goals.
Although Dale Carrick left Hearts yesterday after an injury-hit 2014/15, Oliver will still have a considerable job forcing himself ahead of his more experienced colleagues.
Despite that, he does see the advantages of competing as part of a varied pool of strikers. “Last season was the exact same in terms of competition” he explained. “I just need to keep doing what I’m doing and hopefully the gaffer gives me a chance. It’s then obviously up to me to take it from there. The strikers who have come in are both good players with a lot of experience – especially Juanma. I can learn from him so it’s a good thing as well to be playing with these guys. There’s also guys like Jamie [Walker] playing behind me who can score goals from anywhere and get assists, so it’s good to have them playing round about me.”
With such attacking options, it is likely that Neilson may decide to send Oliver out on loan – as he did last season – for more regular football, although the player was non-committal on the prospect of temporarily leaving Tynecastle once more. A five-month development loan to Stenhousemuir brought a return of two goals in 11 appearances before returning in January. The forward declined the opportunity to return to The Warriors until the end of last season, preferring to remain with Hearts, but was quick to acknowledge the important role ‘Stenny’ played in his development as player. “I’m 100 per cent a better player than I was this time last year. I’m a lot stronger and more powerful than last season. Stenhousemuir helped me a lot – playing there gave me a lot of confidence. In terms of doing it again this season, I’ll just see what happens just now. I’ll have a word with the gaffer at the end of pre-season and take it from there.”
It is perhaps understandable if Oliver’s first preference is to stay and fight for his place this season. Gary Locke gave him a taste of Premiership football in 2013/14 – Oliver made eight appearances as the club were relegated to the Championship, battling against a deduction of 15 points and administration. His first goals for the club came during last season’s march to the Championship title, and having agreed a new one-year contract in the summer with the option of another year, he is keen to test himself once again at the highest level, in what he thinks could be a successful season.
“From League Two and the Championship, it’s definitely a big step up. It’s a lot harder every level you go up but I think we’re strong enough to compete well enough in the Premiership – I think we’ll do well.”