If there is one man praying for Osman Sow to join Hearts, it is Gary Oliver.
He thrived as a diminutive foil for the 6ft 4in trialist at East Fife on Saturday. Both scored in the 3-0 friendly win, with Oliver standing out alongside a giant new attacking partner. It is little wonder he wants a chance to continue the combination.
Sow’s presence as the leading forward allowed Oliver to roam freely in the final third of the pitch and find pockets of space to create openings. With intelligent movement, the youngster darted around between the East Fife midfield and defence in possibly his finest performance for Hearts to date. It was topped off when he headed the second goal into the corner of the net from Billy King’s corner. An even more exquisite finish with his foot minutes earlier had been disallowed for offside.
Oliver celebrated his 19th birthday yesterday and doesn’t hide his desperation to break his competitive duck after ten appearances without a goal last season. That’s something he feels Sow can help with, provided the Swede signs permanently at Tynecastle.
“I think it’s better to play up front with a partner because you can link up with them,” said Oliver, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “If it’s a big target man, then I can work off him. I thought myself and Os linked in quite well. I’ll play up front with anybody but hopefully it works out into a good partnership.
“The big man did well. He held the ball in well and got himself a goal. You couldn’t ask for much more. He deals with the defenders more so I can play off him. Obviously I’m not the strongest, although I’m working on that. If I’ve got a stronger partner then I can feed off him and he can cope with the physical battle.
“I showed the fans a wee bit of what I can do on Saturday. I want to take that into the season and get better and better as the weeks go on.”
Oliver’s personal targets for the next 12 months are both sensible and realistic.
“Starting five games in the first team would be a big target for me,” he continued. “Five goals is a target as well. If I score five this season at this age, I’ll be happy. It depends how many games I play. If I play a lot of matches, hopefully I’ll score. I want to stake my claim in the Hearts first team, do well and make sure the fans know my name.”
Surprisingly for someone who is by no means tall, two of Oliver’s three friendly goals for Hearts’ first team have been headers. The other came a year ago in a 5-0 friendly win against Raith Rovers at Stark’s Park, when he nodded home a cross from another trialist at the time, Gary Naysmith. The campaign which followed gave him a sample of senior football, although Hearts struggled with a young and inexperienced squad after entering administration and being deducted 15 points as punishment.
The lack of experience told on the pitch and they were eventually relegated from the Scottish Premiership. Oliver and other young emerging players felt the brunt of the responsibility on their shoulders. Now, with new owners and new players arriving each week, the future at Tynecastle looks significantly brighter.
Young academy graduates can enhance their game watching more experienced signings, such as Neil Alexander, James Keatings and Soufian El Hassnaoui. That change is a poignant one for Oliver in particular.
“Last year I really had nobody to learn from. There was no out-and-out striker,” he explained. “Now there are people I can learn from and play off and form partnerships with. I’m still young, still learning and I’ve a long way to go. If Hearts are bringing in better players who I can learn from, then it’s all the better for me.”
There is also the added challenge of competing for a place in head coach Robbie Neilson’s new forward line. Keatings, El Hassnaoui and Dale Carrick are already poised to do battle alongside Oliver and any other new arrivals. Oliver certainly did his cause no harm with his performance and goal against East Fife after scoring in the victory over Dinamo Bucharest the previous weekend. “I don’t treat any game as a friendly. I play every game the same way,” he said. “I don’t see the point in friendlies so I try my best in every game and look to get as many goals as I can.
“I thought I did well in the game on Saturday and I was pleased. That’s me scored in two out of three friendlies so I’m doing okay so far. I’m feeling quite sharp and I’m getting shots away at goal. Hopefully I can take it into the new season and get some goals.”
He is far from daunted by the prospect of new signings arriving. “We’ve brought in a few new strikers,” he added. “That just makes me want to up my game and score more goals to try and stake a claim for a place in the team. It’s obviously hard at this age when there are new strikers coming in. I just need to try and do as well as I can.
“Hopefully, Robbie sees my potential and gives me a chance in the first team. He’s said I’ve been doing well and to keep on doing what I’m doing. He said he wants goals out of me but my movement has been good so I’ve been told to keep it going.”
If Oliver can reproduce Saturday’s performance level on a regular basis, Neilson will have plenty to think about when picking his forward line this season.