THERE comes a point in everyone’s life when you must take a risk. For Gary Oliver, that moment arrived just a couple of weeks ago during a one-to-one chat with his father.
Jack Oliver pondered his son’s footballing future with him and it was decided, reluctantly, that he should leave Hearts. Young Oliver didn’t make the choice lightly but, under the circumstances, felt he had to take action.
Lying ahead was another season of sitting on the substitutes’ bench until his backside hurt, and he wasn’t up for it. He could have moved on loan, but ultimately he would return to face the same scenario: Battling with experienced professionals and internationalists for a place in Robbie Neilson’s first team.
Queen of the South wanted the striker at Palmerston Park. St Mirren wanted him in Paisley. It was time to go.
On transfer deadline day, he agreed a release from his Hearts contract and signed a deal to join Queens until the end of the season. It’s a calculated risk. All he can do now is hope it pays off.
“I was talking to my dad one day and I just said: ‘This isn’t on. I think I’m just wasting away here’,” said the 20-year-old. “I could’ve gone on loan and then gone back to Hearts but I wanted to start afresh. I don’t want to be playing for the under-20s and coming on for the last ten minutes of a game. It’s just not me. I needed to make a move. I’m here to play, score goals and enjoy my football again.
“I thought I was going to Queen of the South on loan when Gavin Reilly was coming to Hearts but it didn’t happen. I said I wanted to go on loan if I wasn’t going to play regularly. I chose Queen of the South and I went for a permanent move because I just wanted a fresh start. I could’ve gone to St Mirren but I decided on Queen of the South because of the way they play football. It was my choice.”
Hearts fans disappointed at Oliver’s exit are plentiful. His goalscoring potential was clear from the minute he rose to head home trialist Gary Naismith’s cross in a pre-season friendly at Raith Rovers two summers ago. That was his first taste of first-team football after years progressing through the Riccarton youth academy. Although skinny and raw, he had the makings of a typical fox in the box; a penalty area predator who loves poaches goals.
Since then, his strikes have mostly been in friendlies, although he did net in successive games for Hearts against Raith and Stenhousemuir a year ago. Even a loan move to Stenhousemuir was cut short last season when Hearts suffered an injury crisis up front. Oliver’s recall brought him merely back to the subs’ bench for the rest of the campaign. Tired of his bit-part role and tag of “promising youngster”, he has taken a leap of faith to Dumfries.
“It’s not too much of a change from Hearts because Queens play the same way,” he explained. “It’s not too much of a jump. That’s basically why I chose Queen of the South. They’re a good football team to play in. James Fowler told me he was delighted to get me. He said he would bleed me into the team and that I would get games. Hopefully I’ll be playing on Saturday [against Raith Rovers].”
Stepping down from the Ladbrokes Premiership to the Championship doesn’t faze him. “I don’t think there’s a big difference in quality so I didn’t need to think about it too much. You’re playing at Ibrox and Easter Road so I’m happy with it.”
He made his debut as a substitute against St Mirren last weekend and is pushing for a start against Raith. Oliver spent plenty time listening and learning at Hearts and is now itching to put the knowledge into practice. He watched, learned from and played alongside recognised goalscorers like Genero Zeefuik, Osman Sow and James Keatings. He had hoped to replicate their achievements in a maroon shirt but will more than happily do it in a blue one.
“I like when the ball is in the box, that’s my game,” he continued. “Queen of the South have a lot of experienced strikers who are all good players. I’m sure they’ll give me tips. I learned a lot from Osman at Hearts. He’s quite clever up front and I think he’s got a bit of everything in his game. He’s good to watch and I’d recommend any young player to watch him.
“When I was at Hearts, he would take me aside and say: ‘Time that better, time this better, do this, make late runs into the box.’ He helped me a lot and I scored a few goals because of what he taught me. Stevie Crawford [assistant coach] was really helpful as well, he worked well with the strikers and practised shooting with us every day.”
The aim is to build momentum at Queen of the South throughout the rest of the season and then assess options next summer. Oliver’s long-term ambition is to play in England but first he wants to play in Dumfries.
“In time I hope to go higher than the Premiership and get down to England. That’s the long-term aim,” he said. “You need to take a wee step back to go forwards. If I do well this season and score goals, then hopefully something will happen for me. If not, I’ll keep working hard and hopefully it will happen in the future. I think I’ll do well at Queens, I know I’ll score goals if I get the chance. That’s why I moved.”