Just a few weeks ago, Gary Oliver was riding the crest of a wave and hopeful of nailing down a regular berth in Hearts’ first team.
As a starry-eyed teenager who had just banged in his first two senior goals in consecutive matches against Raith Rovers and Stenhousemuir, he could have been forgiven for feeling a tad deflated when head coach Robbie Neilson suggested at the end of last month that he should go out on loan to, ironically, Stenny in order to continue his development.
However, aware that he would have to beat off formidable competition from the more experienced quartet of Osman Sow, James Keatings, Soufian El Hassnaoui and Dale Carrick for an attacking berth, the 19-year-old soon started to look at the prospect of a temporary drop into League One in a positive light.
“There are a lot of strikers at the club and I’m obviously the youngest so I could see why the manager wanted me to go out on loan,” Oliver told the Evening News.
“It’s a chance to get more games under my belt and learn more about the game. I’d done well in pre-season and scored a couple of goals in the first team, but I wasn’t disappointed at going out on loan. I’m still young and I’m learning and I think it’ll be a good thing. Hopefully I’ll play well, get a lot of goals and then come back to Hearts having learnt a lot and built up some good experience.”
Although he makes no secret of the fact he’d rather be leading the Hearts attack, Oliver believes that regular first-team football at Ochilview will be of far more benefit to him than warming the Jambos bench or playing for the Under-20 side.
“The main thing is that I’m getting game time, which is what I want,” he said. “I just really want to play. I sat on the bench a lot last season, but although I’m still young, I feel like I really need to play now. I don’t want to be sitting on the bench. I’m still allowed to play for Hearts’ Under-20s if they want to use me but I don’t think there’s any plans unless they really need me.
“I’m quite happy with that because I’d rather play first-team football at the weekend. I need to step things up a bit and play the man’s game.”
Oliver’s loan deal runs until January, although he can be recalled for Hearts first-team duty at 48 hours notice if Neilson finds himself short of strikers. The young Glaswegian knows he must make the most of his time at Ochilview if he is to have a chance of forcing his way further up the pecking order at Hearts and earning himself a new contract.
“There are a lot of strikers at Hearts, so I need to make sure I’m doing well to get up the queue,” he acknowledged. “I’m only contracted here until the end of the season, so I’ve got a wee bit of pressure on me to make the most of my time at Stenhousemuir.”
Oliver will continue to train as normal with his Hearts team-mates at Riccarton during the week, while also meeting up with his part-time Warriors colleagues on Monday and Thursday evenings. He is grateful to have multiple platforms to try and further impress Hearts’ management. “If I’m not going to play every week at Hearts, I’ve got the best of both worlds because I’m still training with Hearts and I’m playing first-team football at the weekend for Stenhousemuir,” he said.
“It means I’ve got two ways to impress because I can still catch Robbie’s eye in training and I can also do it by scoring goals for Stenny. The manager will want to see that I’m approaching it properly and that’s what I’m going to do. I need to treat it like I’m playing at the top level. If I’m scoring goals every week for Stenhousemuir, it’ll get my name out there and fans and the management will sit up and take notice. I want to go into the Hearts first team again when my loan is up.”
Oliver’s outlook is enhanced by the positive effect loan spells at lower-league clubs have had on so many other young players before him. Neilson himself enjoyed a spell at Cowdenbeath in his days as a Hearts youngster, while Oliver, in turning out for Stenhousemuir, is following in the footsteps of Scotland’s most prominent striker of the past decade. “Hopefully I end up doing what Kenny Miller did,” he said of a player whose career ignited after a short but successful spell on loan at Stenny from Hibs in the late 1990s. “His career didn’t end up too bad, did it?
“It’s a normal thing nowadays, going out on loan – it’s part of the pathway into the first team. Boys like Jason Holt and Jamie Walker went out on loan before.”
Unsure of what to expect, Oliver spoke to team-mate Brad McKay, who had benefited from a spell at Stenhousemuir two years ago. It helped set his mind at rest ahead of his first game for Scott Booth’s Warriors, a 2-0 defeat away to title favourites Dunfermline last Saturday.
“Brad said it’s a good club to go to. All the boys are brand new. I’d scored against Stenny in my last game for Hearts and when I joined, a few of them were having a laugh and saying ‘that’s him that scored against us’. I didn’t have a clue at that point I would be joining them, but it’s good, I’m enjoying it.
“It’s a little bit different playing in front of a few hundred fans compared to what you get watching Hearts. You’d obviously rather play in front of 16,000 fans every week, but playing in the lower leagues is all part of the learning curve.
“Obviously it wasn’t the best of results on Saturday but playing at that level is certainly not as easy as people say it is. You’re not always getting the best of supply and my first game against Dunfermline was hard because they’re full-time and most of the Stenny team are part-time. We were the better team in the first half but we tired a bit in the second half.”
Oliver’s next assignment in the maroon of Stenhousemuir is away to Peterhead on Saturday. A long trek to unglamorous Balmoor might not have been on his radar when he was breaking his duck against Raith Rovers in front of 4000 travelling Hearts fans last month, but, all things considered, the youngster is pretty content with his lot so far.
“I feel I’ve achieved quite a lot for my age,” he said. “Last year I never thought I’d be anywhere near the first team, but I’ve already scored a few goals in pre-season and in the first team. I also got into the Scotland Under-19 team and scored a goal, so I’m quite happy. I’m going into the Stenhousemuir team with a lot of confidence and I’ll do my best to keep on progressing.”