A HOME cup tie against lower-league opponents would seem the ideal chance for Hearts to blood even more youngsters.
Sam Nicholson may look like he would need ID to get served in the school canteen, but he is one of several academy graduates hoping to feature against Queen of the South tonight.
Don’t mistake the baby face and One Direction hairstyle for a lack of footballing maturity. At 18, Nicholson is as highly rated as any Riccarton pupil of recent years. He has had little chance to show his ability so far with only two substitute appearances – totalling 19 minutes – at senior level. He is quite prepared to be patient.
Competition is rife for the winger with Jamie Walker, Billy King and David Smith, all older and more experienced, playing in his position. Smith is an injury doubt for tonight’s League Cup third-round tie, which could open up a slot in the team. Nicholson wouldn’t be expected to play from the start but it wouldn’t be unreasonable for him to covet a second-half cameo role and some much-needed first-team experience.
He already knows what he wants. “I’d rather pass the ball than kick it long. I like the ball on the deck,” he said in an exclusive Evening News interview. “I hate the ball in the air because I’m not the biggest player. I much prefer balls in to feet. I prefer playing on the left wing even though I’m right-footed. I like cutting in from the left. I hate playing on the right, to be honest. I don’t know why, I just don’t like it.
“It’s a higher level playing in the first team but I’m hoping I get more game time to get used to it. My chance has come earlier than I thought. You want to make your debut as early as you can and I’m glad I got it by the age of 18. I might not even be on the bench tonight but to be involved with the squad would be brilliant. I’ll need to wait and see. Queen of the South are a really good side. We played them in pre-season and they gave us a hard game. I imagine we’ll need a full-strength squad so I’ll be happy to be involved in any way.”
Nicholson joined Hearts at the age of 12 and was a season-ticket holder in Tynecastle’s Gorgie Road Stand. He hails from a family full of Jambos who are willing him on every step of the way. Indeed, Mr and Mrs Nicholson are currently in the process of getting young Sam’s shirt from his debut against Inverness framed before giving it pride of place in the family home.
“My dad has always said to me since I was younger that it’s a long journey,” he said. “You don’t just join a club and then you sail right through. You need to go through the ranks and, hopefully, I will go higher still but there’s a long way for me to go.”
He has already come a fair distance, mind. “When I signed for Hearts it was such a big step up from boys’ club,” continued Nicholson. “It’s something I wasn’t used to and I struggled at first. When I first started I was miles behind everyone and it was quite upsetting. It wasn’t a nice feeling. My coach was Stevie Cowan and he told me to stick in and eventually I got used to it. When you’re young, you go through dips in form but Darren Murray [Hearts’ player development manager] has always been supportive of the younger players. He’s done a lot for all of us. I’ve come through with players like Adam King and Jordan McGhee. As soon as we came in as full-time players, there was such a big difference in the training. It takes a while to get used to it but Darren helps you through it.
“Through every youth team we are always taught to pass the ball. I’d say this is probably the best club in Scotland to be at for youth development. Hearts are never afraid to chuck in a young player so I’m happy I’m here. I’m glad I’ve had a few opportunities and hopefully there are more to come. Being a Hearts fan, it’s the weirdest thing actually being on the fringes of the first team having gone to all the games as a kid.”
That upbringing makes his recent promotion to first-team level all the more striking. “It’s probably the best thing that could happen to me,” said Nicholson. “I came to Hearts as a centre forward but I’m not the biggest so I got shifted out to the wings and had to develop as a winger. I prefer playing on the wings now. As long as I’m playing, I’m not really fussed.”
His two senior games so far have ended in defeat against Inverness and Ross County, but Nicholson is nothing if not positive. “Before I went on against Ross County and Inverness, the manager [Gary Locke] just said, ‘when you get the ball, be positive, go forward and try to create things’. As a winger, that’s what you want to hear. You don’t want to be negative and go back every time you get the ball. It’s good being told that before you go on.”
Nicholson is just praying he hears those same instructions being whispered in his ear at some point this evening.