With their blend of technical skill, composure and creativity, Sam Nicholson and Jason Holt have the ability to inspire Hearts to victory over Hibs this Sunday.
That is the opinion of their mentor, former Riccarton youth coach Darren Murray, who feels both players are central to hopes of a home victory in the Edinburgh derby.
Nicholson has shone in recent Hearts matches with a series of impressive displays on the left flank. His direct running and quick feet make him an unpredictable opponent who can eliminate defenders to create scoring chances. Holt lately returned from a broken metatarsal and brought a touch of composure as a substitute against Dundee United last Friday. He is in contention to start in midfield against Hibs.
Murray, who left Tynecastle for Coventry City in November, hopes both players can express themselves amid the tumultuous derby atmosphere. They are just 19 and 21 respectively but Murray stressed that it is craft and not age which counts in such high-octane fixtures.
“I always went into derby matches with my best footballers on the park because, in the hurly burly, it’s the guys who can control the ball and pass it who become so important to you,” he told the Evening News. “I’ve been involved in loads of under-20 and reserve derbies and if you forget what you’re about and the game just becomes a battle, you might not win it. If you get players in there who can control the game, that’s important.
“I’m not saying Jason Holt or Sam Nicholson can control the game but I think they would have a massive input and a massive impact on it. They’re good footballers and they are really hard-working. Looking at Sam, he’s getting a lot more robust. That was the one thing we maybe could have questioned. In terms of ability, he’s great and Jason is exactly the same.
“Sam’s been excellent. You couldn’t call him a find because he was playing like that at the start of the season for the under-20s and it was only a matter of time before he got his opportunity. It probably should’ve come quicker but he’s taken it with both hands and is doing fantastically well.”
Murray was involved as a coach in the previous Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle last August, when Callum Paterson’s header accorded Hearts a 1-0 win. “It’s great being a Hearts supporter beating Hibs,” he continued. “Anyone who works at that club will go into derbies thinking they can beat Hibs and it should be no different on Sunday.
“Yes, the landscape has changed because Hearts are about to be relegated. I watched the Dundee United game and I thought they did okay. I thought their midfield structure needed a bit more discipline and, if they can do that, they will cause Hibs problems.”
Murray suggests that a diminutive central partnership of Holt and Scott Robinson would bring more tactical harmony. “Jason and Scott would be a really good balance in midfield. They are reasonably small but both of them are very tenacious. When Jason came on against Dundee United on Friday, I thought the game changed a wee bit because he showed that bit of composure on the ball. I think Jason and Scott are suited to playing in there together. Jamie Hamill has been playing there but Jason and Scott are natural midfield players.”
Depending on St Mirren’s result at Inverness on Saturday, Hearts could be relegated by Hibs the following day in a nightmare scenario for all Tynecastle supporters. Yet Murray believes it is their spirit that will underpin a brighter future and help the club rebuild in the Championship.
“It will be a difficult task for Hearts on Sunday but, as always, the supporters will make it a fantastic atmosphere. Tynecastle will be rocking and I have to commend the fans because every time I watch the team they are behind them. It was a pleasure to be there because, towards the end, the supporters kept the club alive.
“Ann Budge coming in and taking control can only be a positive move for everybody at Hearts. It can be a new beginning with no debt and we can move forward. We’ve been mismanaged for a number of years.
“The money spent on players’ salaries was outrageous. That’s gone now so we can get back to being the real Heart of Midlothian – a club so many supporters love.
“I wish Gary Locke and the players every success on Sunday. Another three points against out biggest rivals would tremendous and it would be great for the younger players to play a big part in that as well.”