The match may have ended in defeat, but Hearts’ 1-0 loss to St Johnstone at the weekend saw Sam Nicholson not only return to the starting line-up, but also to the direct and exciting style of play that makes him such an attacking threat.
The decision to recall the player was a no-brainer for head coach Robbie Neilson. Nicholson emerged from the bench during the previous game against Hamilton with Hearts 1-0 down. By full-time, the winger had crossed for the equaliser, won the penalty for Jamie Walker’s second and stylishly rounded off the win with a fine strike of his own.
Saturday’s encounter was another Hearts should have won comfortably. Pinning their hosts back and countering swiftly following St Johnstone’s rare forays forward, the Jambos could have been three up at the break if it weren’t for an inspired display by Saints goalkeeper Zander Clark. Nicholson proved a real a worry for Tommy Wright’s men, running freely at left-back Brian Easton and combining well with both Bjorn Johnsen and Tony Watt in particular to carve out opportunities. It’s the type of display all at Tynecastle know the winger is capable of but hasn’t produced consistently. The second half of last season saw the 21-year-old’s form dip during a long run of games. Walker’s intermittent fitness issues and Billy King being out on loan meant Nicholson was often the sole established wide player available to Neilson, with youngster Dario Zanatta providing some respite as a substitute.
Nicholson acknowledged that a seat on the bench the previous weekend was required, and that the chance to rest in future will benefit his game.
“Definitely, it was something I needed,” he admitted. “Sometimes you need that kick up the backside. Whether it was that or I needed a rest, I don’t know. It got to the end of last season and me and the manager spoke about it and he said ‘you look tired’.
“I’m 21 and I’ve played over 100 games so I totally understand where he’s coming from.
“He was saying to me the 100 games for someone who’s 21 is a lot to take and said ‘maybe we need to start resting you a bit more’. And, to be honest, I agree with him. I have a bit of a rest now and I feel good. I’ve felt sharp the last few games so it’s just down to me now.
“It wasn’t something I thought about. I’ll play in any game the gaffer calls on me but sometimes it’s a mental thing as well as physical. Because I’m so young as well, it’s something that my body isn’t used to, playing that many games. It was tiring and I didn’t know much about it, but now me and the gaffer have spoken it means I can get rested more and we can chop and change the team. We’ve got the squad to do that anyway. We’ve had players coming off the bench and changing the game this season so hopefully that can keep happening throughout the season.”
Having been in and around the first team for over three years now, it’s often easy to forget Nicholson is still in his formative years as a footballer. While accepting of criticism, he believes the physical demands on young players often isn’t taken in to account.
“Last season, when I wasn’t doing well, I heard a lot of people’s comments saying ‘aw, he’s no good anymore’ and stuff like that” he explained. “I was thinking ‘I’m just tired’. That’s something that just comes with football and when people don’t think you’re doing well, they maybe don’t understand why.
“It’s something that you take on the chin – you know yourself when you’ve had a good game and the only opinions that really matter to me are mine, my family’s, the manager’s and the players in the team. If the manager thinks I’m doing well, then perfect.”
Neilson has had reason to think that of late. A brace in the recent 5-1 home mauling of Inverness preceeded the late clincher against Hamilton. Three goals is a decent start, but finding the net more often is something the number 11 has demanded of himself.
“I said at the start of the season that I wanted to add more goals and assists to my game,” he recalled. “I’ve set up a couple already and scored three goals so it’s good for me on a personal note, but obviously I just want to keep winning games. It’s something that comes with age as well. You can get a bit burnt out and I think that was the case last season, but now I need to add different things to my game.”
Summer recruitment has seen the arrival of three new strikers in Gorgie and – on the back of certain criticisms last season – a more attacking approach, particularly outside Edinburgh. For a player like Nicholson, that can only be beneficial.
“Attacking-wise I think we can be a real force this season,” he enthused. “You’ve seen in the last few games we are creating chances but unfortunately on Saturday we just couldn’t finish them. Sometimes that happens and we just need to deal with it.”
Tony Watt has been the eye-catching arrival down Gorgie – on and off the pitch for Nicholson. “He’s easy to get on with because he’s a big loudmouth!” he laughed. “He’s a great player as well and you know if he gets the ball he’s going to create things so that’s what we try and do. As long as we keep that solid protection behind us, the players in front have that freedom.
“He’s lifted us off the pitch too, but I think a character like that always does. We’ve always had a close dressing room. After a defeat, we get together and discuss things and this week we’ve said we were unlucky and we’ll go again. The players we’ve recruited have fitted in well and they know what we want to do here. That’ll contribute to us getting over defeats like Saturday.”