Dreams of establishing himself as Hearts’ No.9 are still just that for Gary Oliver. Nonetheless, the 19-year-old is back early from a loan at Stenhousemuir eager to make an impression.
He was recalled three weeks before the loan was due to end because of a mini striker crisis developing at Riccarton. Injuries to Osman Sow, Dale Carrick and Soufian El Hassnaoui left head coach Robbie Neilson short of options. That such an enthusiastic and talented player can be brought in to compensate in those circumstances underlines the luxuries enjoyed by the Tynecastle management, who have since added Dutch striker Genero Zeefuik to their squad on loan.
Oliver admits feeling elated when his mobile phone rang in mid-December. Becoming a regular goalscorer at Hearts is his long-term aim, so the chance to return there and play was an unexpected bonus. He heads to Dumbarton tomorrow hoping for a place in the starting line-up at the only league venue where Hearts have failed to score this season.
“I’m happy to be back, it’s three weeks before I was meant to be back. I didn’t expect to be involved in the derby last week [he came on as a substitute] either so that’s a nice bonus,” he told the Evening News. “Obviously I’d rather be at Hearts than Stenhousemuir, but I learned a lot there and it’s been good for me.
“Physically, it’s a case of playing against men compared to the under-20s. You learn a lot playing against older people and you need to win, so it’s a lot more competitive.
“Hopefully I get my chance soon and get into the team somehow. If I get a chance, it’s up to me to take it. If I don’t then it’s my fault. I want to give the gaffer something to think about.
“It’s going to be hard to get into a team that’s doing so well and winning every week. I just need to work hard in training, show a good attitude and hopefully get my chance when I come on in games.
“I want to be the main striker at Hearts in the future. If I get my chance, I really need to take it. Having competition keeps you on your toes because you know if you aren’t doing well in training then you’re going to be out of the team.”
Oliver had hoped that a productive pre-season campaign, in which he scored four times, would be enough to cement his place in the first-team squad at Hearts. It was decided he needed more senior experience, hence the loan arrangement with the Stenhousemuir manager, Scott Booth.
“I did quite well pre-season and I would’ve liked to have stayed, but I’m the youngest striker here and the least experienced,” acknowledged Oliver. “I went out on loan to get experience and I think I got a good bit of it, so I’m happy with that. Scott Booth was really happy with me and he fed that back to the gaffer here.
“I was out when the gaffer phoned me saying he wanted me to come back. The loan said I could be recalled 48 hours before a game. There was definitely a recall in the contract and I was happy to come back.
“Stenhousemuir were lucky if they had a few hundred fans at a game then you come back to Hearts and there’s 17,000 at games. I knew the Hibs game was coming up so it was good to be involved in that.”
At the back of his mind has been the fact Neilson wanted to recruit another striker during the January transfer window. Despite a plethora of options with everyone fit, Hearts confirmed the loan signing of Zeefuik from FC Groningen yesterday afternoon. Oliver is unperturbed.
“It’s up to the gaffer what he does about a striker. Hopefully I can learn from him and it can make me a better player.”
Wisely, he has already tried to make the most of training sessions alongside more experienced technicians like El Hassnaoui and Sow. “I think Osman Sow is a top quality striker who could play in most leagues. He’s good at everything – he’s quick, strong, good on the ball and he can finish. I’ve learned a lot from him since he’s come here and these guys help me a lot.”
Not only is Oliver attempting to prove himself worthy of a starting place at the moment, he is also seeking a new contract. His current deal expires in June and he is desperate to sign an extension and remain with the Edinburgh club. He knows performances between now and the end of the season could be pivotal to that aim.
“I’m out of contract at the end of the season,” he said. “That gives you a wee bit of something to think about but all I can do is keep trying to impress the gaffer to try and get a new one. I want to stay, definitely.”
Tomorrow could offer Oliver a prime opportunity to showcase his strengths. He and James Keatings are in line to play at Dumbarton, with Sow and El Hassnaoui due back from thigh and ankle injuries respectively in the next couple of weeks and Zeefuik expected to be a sub.
Neilson must decide whether to deploy a two-man attack of Keatings and Oliver or use the in-form Keatings as a lone striker. Oliver is hoping he goes for the first option and gives him a chance to kickstart the second half of the campaign.
“It would be great to be in a team that’s won the league and got a trophy at the end of the year. That would be good for all the boys and it would be a good thing on your CV,” said Oliver.
“I’ve still got another few months left on my contract so nearer the time I’ll probably have a think about it. I just need to keep trying to impress in training and in under-20 games.”