Gary Locke today praised young attackers Dale Carrick and Sam Nicholson for giving Hearts fresh impetus and establishing themselves as key men since the turn of the year.
The manager felt the diminutive duo were too lightweight for regular action earlier in the season, but since bulking up and being given more prominent roles in January, they have helped spark an upturn in the team’s performances.
Carrick and Nicholson, both 19, were Hearts’ two standout players at Kilmarnock on Saturday, with both netting their second goals for the club in the 4-2 defeat.
Locke said: “The emergence of Sam and Dale has been a real bonus for us – I’m really pleased with the two of them. They’ve brought a bit extra energy to the team at a time when we were short of numbers. I think we’ve done the right thing with them in terms of how we’ve bedded them in.
“They’re great lads to work with but at the start of the season they were very slight. We’ve worked really hard with them on their upper-body. Dave Sykes, the sports scientist, has got to take a lot of credit because he’s worked tirelessly with them in the gym.
“At the start of the season they were getting knocked off the ball really easily in training, but in the last couple of months, that’s not been the case because they’ve both been getting physically stronger. You can tell just by looking at them that they’re bigger. They’ve never looked back since January. If they keep developing as they are, they’ll hopefully have big futures in the game.”
Locke has taken heart from watching the pair develop over the past season. He said: “Carrick’s been in and around the squad for a couple of seasons. He’s always had pace, and his attitude and workrate is fantastic but the worry for him was always that he wasn’t strong enough to hold people off. He’s certainly added strength to his game this season and I think in the last couple of months we’ve probably seen the best of him.
“When Sam came in at 16, his ability was unquestionable. I was a coach when he first came in so he’s certainly one I’ve kept an eye on. I watched the 20s a lot and, although he never played a lot, he always looked exciting when he did play. In the last year or so, he’s been training with the first team and there’s been a big development in his game.
“There’s a big difference between the Under-20s and the first team in terms of the pace. Even the training’s different – you’ve got to be sharper and do things quicker. He’s been around the first-team boys for about year now and he’s definitely developed really well. His performances in the last couple of months have been outstanding.”