Sam Nicholson is regarded as one of Scotland’s most precocious footballing talents. Just don’t ask the Hearts winger to buy into any of the hype.
He believes he has done nothing of note in his fledgling career and still has much to prove.
That attitude will endear Nicholson to his superiors at Riccarton. Both director of football Craig Levein and head coach Robbie Neilson want grounded players with a burning desire to improve. Should they develop as planned, they will be given a chance to move on and play at a higher level when the time is right.
Nicholson is guarded about his long-term aspirations and remains focused solely on helping Hearts achieve promotion from the Championship this season. However, those who watch him regularly know he has the talent to succeed elsewhere, be that in Scotland, England or abroad.
“Something like that being said is obviously good for me, but I’ve not really done anything with my football yet,” said the 19-year-old. “I’ve still got a lot to prove. I’m just looking to try and kick on and hopefully live up to whatever is being said.
“It doesn’t really put pressure on me. When I play, I’m just trying to do as well as I can. All I can do is my best at the end of the day. I would never talk about my own game anyway. I just try to go out and do my best.
“At the start of the season, the target was to get promoted. We’re all going out to do that and that’s the aim for the whole team. We just need to keep going game by game to achieve it. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. It will be really hard. We’ve only gone through the cycle of league games once. We’ve got another three times to play everyone and they’re all good teams.”
Nicholson is similarly unassuming away from football. “I’ve started getting noticed a bit more in the street, but I try to keep my head down. I’ve got a good group of friends so I’m always with them or I’ll get them round to mine and play FIFA. That’s all we do. I’m not really out a lot. I just try to keep quiet.”
Hearts have been open about their desire to develop players before selling them on. That prospect remains at the back of most of the club’s younger players’ minds. “It’s good to have people saying that. It’s a good incentive for players who want to go to a higher level,” continued Nicholson. “The most important thing is we concentrate on Hearts right now and try to win the league here.
“Players like Danny Wilson, he’s been down in England and played in Europe with Liverpool. He’s somebody you look at. Neil Alexander has been at a lot of clubs as well so it’s about looking at them and seeing what they’ve done. We look at it and we’ll try to get to the same places they’ve been. On and off the park, they’re all really professional in the dressing room.
“Nobody really talks about their own game, nobody is big-headed and I think that’s why the team is close this season. Everyone likes each other. We all want to kick on and get better. Robbie said all he wants us to do is to keep improving. If we keep doing that, we’ll keep winning games.”
After the trials of administration last season, Hearts are enjoying their bright new dawn under Ann Budge’s ownership. The youth academy graduates who toiled last year are now flourishing and look stronger for the experience. The Edinburgh club enter this afternoon’s match against Dumbarton nine points clear of Rangers at the top of the SPFL Championship after a flying start to the new campaign.
Nicholson acknowledged the devastation caused by Hearts’ financial collapse, but, with hindsight, he admits he was one who benefited as a result. “It was obviously bad for the club but, for the likes of me and Billy King, it was good for us because it got us on the park. The more games we played, the better we became,” he said.
“First team is a hard level to get used to. Administration wasn’t a nice thing to happen to Hearts, but it meant we played players like Jordan McGhee. He’s played over 30 games at first-team level and he’s 18.”
McGhee will start today’s match at centre-back if captain Danny Wilson’s hamstring strain means he is not risked. Dumbarton are the only side to take any league points from Hearts after last month’s 0-0 draw between the clubs.
“We’ve kept the same training programme and we’ve obviously been looking at their weaknesses and strengths,” said Nicholson. “We’re just approaching it as we’re approaching every game. We’re going out to win it. We’ve approached every game the right way and we just need to keep doing that. It’s good to play in this team.”