Gary Oliver’s appetite for first-team action has been further whetted by seeing Under-20s team-mates Sam Nicholson and Dale Carrick score their first goals for Hearts last weekend.
The 18-year-old Glaswegian made his return from injury as a second-half substitute in the 3-3 draw at St Johnstone, but it was his young colleagues who stole the headlines as both Carrick, 20, and Nicholson, 18, enjoyed the most memorable moments of their fledgling careers so far. Oliver, who has outscored both his fellow attackers in the Under-20s, is now itching to get in on the act himself by getting off the mark in the first team.
“I’ve been growing up with these boys and playing in the under-20s week in, week out with them. It’s always good to see them doing well, and hopefully my chance will come also.
“I’m the top goalscorer for the 20s so I’ll try and establish myself in the first team and score goals there as well. I think it’s 14 goals I’ve scored. If the door opens I’ll take my chance and settle in the first team.”
Oliver made his first start for Hearts when Gary Locke shuffled his pack somewhat for the League Cup clash with Queen of the South in September, but with Ryan Stevenson and Callum Paterson generally holding down the centre- forward berths this season, he had to wait until the visit of Inverness in December before he was handed his next start.
No sooner had he forced his way into the reckoning, though, than he was back out of the picture, with an ankle injury sustained early in that 2-0 defeat by Caley Thistle ruling him out over the festive period. It allowed Carrick to steal in ahead of him in the hunt for any vacant striker berths, so Oliver may have to content himself with a place on the bench again for today’s trip to Ross County.
“I got my chance, got thrown in against Inverness and I thought I’d done all right,” he recalls. “Getting injured didn’t really help. I just landed on my ankle in the first minute of the game. I stood on my ankle and did my ligaments.
“There were a lot of games coming up and I missed out on them – including the Hibs game and the Celtic game, two of the biggest of the season. It was hard, but hopefully I’ll come back stronger and get a place in the team.”
That Inverness game also provided Nicholson with his first Premiership start. In the Under-20s, Oliver and Nicholson have struck up a close on-field bond, with the latter buzzing about intelligently behind the former and providing him with no shortage of scoring opportunities. Darren Murray, Hearts’ former youth coach, has waxed lyrical about the “telepathic” understanding between the pair, and Oliver would love the chance for their burgeoning partnership to flourish at first-team level. “Me and Sam are used to playing together for the 20s, so hopefully if we’re in the first team together we’ll do well,” he said. “He got a goal for the first team last week, so all the best to him – hopefully I can join him in the team.”
As well as learning from the coaches at Riccarton, Oliver is also able to pick the brains of his uncle, Jim Duffy, the former centre-half with Morton, Dundee and Partick Thistle who went on to manage Hibs before having a brief period as director of football/assistant manager at Hearts alongside Graham Rix eight years ago.
“He gives me a few tips and has come and watched me a few times,” explained Oliver. “Obviously he was a defender and I’m a striker, but he tells me what he thinks I was doing right and wrong, which is good.
“I never saw him play, so I don’t know how good he was – he might have been rotten! I knew he was at Hearts for a time after his playing days, but I’m not too sure what he was doing. He’s never really spoken about Hearts – never said much. I knew he was an assistant, but that was it.”