THERE are two chances of young Sam Nicholson getting carried away after his first senior start for Hearts last weekend: slim and none.
The 18-year-old looked impressive against Inverness Caledonian Thistle and is hoping to retain his place for tomorrow’s visit to Celtic Park. Becoming aloof because of his promotion isn’t an option. At least, not while his father is around.
Nicholson is the epitome of the level-headed footballer. If that ever changed, his dad would move swiftly into action.
“One of the most important things in football is staying level-headed,” said Nicholson. “I know that, if I ever stopped being level-headed, my dad would soon let me know. He’s not on my case as such, because he’s always positive and never has a negative thing to say, but he would tell me if I got a wee bit ahead of myself. We are all young players coming through at Hearts and it’s important all of us stay level-headed. No-one should get carried away with themselves.
“Coming through the academy, we’re told to respect the time we’re given on the pitch. We all really appreciate getting a chance in the first team. All the younger players want to do is play in the first team. That’s everyone’s dream, obviously.
“To get into the first team, you need to work really hard. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, as long as you get there eventually. I’m just happy I’ve got my first start and I’m hoping for more throughout the season.
“I never expected to be playing first-team football at 18. I thought it would be much older. I’m happy I’m here at this age, although I expected still to be fighting for a place in the under-20 team at this stage in my career. I enjoy playing for the under-20s as well as the first team, but I want to play in the first team because it’s a higher level. As long as I’m playing football, I’m happy.”
He was certainly happy last Saturday. Over the moon, in fact. Despite Inverness winning 2-0 at Tynecastle, it was a day lifelong Hearts supporter Nicholson will remember for the rest of his life. “I thought I did okay, I was just glad to get a start,” he continued. “I would have liked to get a win for the team, but we have a short squad just now so it’s hard to win against experienced teams like Inverness. I was pleased with my own performance. I think I could’ve got a wee bit more involved, but I’m only 18 and I should be happy with how I played.
“A couple of my friends were at the game, as were my mum and dad. They’ve all said they were proud of me and happy with the way I played. That’s good enough for me.
“Because of the squad we have, players are always going to get an opportunity. I was just really happy to get mine, to be honest. We ran over the set-pieces on Friday before the Inverness game, so I found out then I was playing. It was definitely a big confidence boost. I’m a Hearts supporter, so starting a match for the club was one of the best things for me.”
Nicholson’s next challenge is to stay in manager Gary Locke’s plans. He endorsed his credentials to good effect with a skilful and creative performance against Inverness and is now a strong contender to start against Celtic.
Locke has been short of options in a threadbare squad since Hearts’ entered administration in the summer, but injuries are now ravaging his group even further. Jason Holt, Ryan Stevenson, Mark Ridgers and Gary Oliver are already sidelined, whilst a groin complaint is likely to render Scott Robinson unavailable for the trip to Glasgow. Nicholson’s attacking instincts could therefore be vital on the counter-attack.
“To stay in the team, I need to keep working hard in training and showing that I want to play,” he explained. “Just being involved in the squad makes me happy, although naturally I’d like to get more starts. I’d really like to be able to start playing like I did in the under-20s. I didn’t do badly last Saturday, but, with more games, I’ll get more used to the standard. Once I get used to it, I’ll hopefully start producing better performances. It’s a higher level and I want to start building some momentum.
“Tomorrow is a big game and I’d be happy just to be on the bench and being involved. If I start the game, it’s a big bonus. I just hope we can get a victory.”
Given Celtic’s 7-0 trouncing of Hearts in the Scottish Cup earlier this month, an away win looks unlikely on paper. The league champions have lost only once at home this season – to Championship club Morton in the League Cup. They remain undefeated in the league both home and away, but Nicholson stressed that Hearts will head to Glasgow in a positive frame of mind.
“We don’t have any fear of Celtic. I think we’ve learned what they can do and we’ll have a gameplan to go up against that tomorrow.
“As long as we match them for work rate and make the game hard for them, that’s the important things. I doubt they’re going to enjoy it if we’re marking them tightly and working as hard as them. They aren’t going to find the game easy if we can match them. If we all go there with a positive attitude, believing we’re as good as Celtic, there’s no reason we can’t get something out of the game.”
Hearts will recall Brad McKay for this match after leaving the young centre-back out of the team for several weeks to regain form. He is expected to partner captain Danny Wilson in central defence, which could mean Dylan McGowan assuming a holding role in the defensive midfield area to protect the back four.
For Nicholson and several others in the away dressing-room, this will be a first experience of the Parkhead cauldron and the intimidating atmosphere Celtic’s support can create. A touch of naivety could work in Hearts’ favour if the youth academy kids can play without trepidation and express themselves on the wide open surface.
“I’ve never played at Celtic Park before. A big pitch like that would probably suit me,” said Nicholson. “Our whole team likes to pass the ball so, on a big pitch, that might suit us.
“We might be on the back foot a lot against a team like Celtic, but we just need to stay positive and hopefully get something out of the game.
“Maybe the fact many of us haven’t played there before could work to our advantage, but Celtic are a really good side. We all respect them as a team and we know what they can do. They are top of the league and they have some outstanding players. As long as we don’t make silly mistakes, we can get something.”