Sam Nicholson believes the fright of almost suffering their first league defeat of the season at Easter Road will bring renewed focus to Hearts’ title challenge.
Back in 2005, the Jambos’ unbeaten start to the season was ended away to Hibs on the last weekend of October. On Sunday, nine years on, it looked like history was about to repeat itself as ten-man Hearts trailed heading into stoppage time and appeared to be running out of ideas.
Then Alim Ozturk intervened. The big Turk’s stunning 40-yard thunderbolt equaliser means his team now go into November yet to taste defeat in any of their 11 Championship matches.
Nicholson believes the impetus they will have taken from their unlikely late salvage job can help kick them get back into gear as they prepare for a month in which they welcome their title rivals Rangers to Tynecastle.
“It was a good point for us,” declared Nicholson. “It felt like a win because we were down to ten men and had been up against it. To be honest [nearly losing] is not the worst thing that could have happened to us.”
With Hearts having won 13 and lost only three of the previous 22 Edinburgh derbies, Nicholson recognises that no Jambo would ordinarily be happy with a draw against their city rivals. However, given the circumstances of the game, with Hibs particularly impressive and Hearts struggling to get going and then losing Callum Paterson to a red card, the teenager felt this was one instance when the Tynecastle side were entitled to savour the solitary point they took.
“We obviously want to win every derby, but Easter Road’s a hard place to come anyway and then Callum’s sending off made it even harder,” he continued. “It wasn’t the best performance from us, we can certainly play a lot better, so we were just delighted to get something out of the game. The goal was a relief and we were happy to get a point in the end. The result was better than the performance.”
Hearts return to training tomorrow after a couple of well-earned days off to recharge their batteries. They have a free weekend coming up as the bulk of their Championship rivals engage in Scottish Cup action before returning to the fray at home to Raith Rovers on Saturday week. Nicholson believes they will welcome the Kirkcaldy side to Tynecastle with renewed resolve having shown at Easter Road that they have the character to bounce back from falling behind, something they hadn’t previously been required to do in the league this season.
“The main thing is that we’re still unbeaten but we need to get back to winning ways in the next game,” said Nicholson. “Raith Rovers are a good side but we need to approach the game in the right manner and stay positive. It’s important we don’t get beat any time soon. Sunday showed that, even if things are not working for you, if you keep going, you can get a goal eventually. When you’re 1-0 down, you’ve got to stay positive and try and get something out of the game. We’ve got that belief about us that we can come back from things like that.”
Hearts, seven points clear at the top of the table, remain 14 points ahead of Hibs. Nicholson, however, believes that the Easter Road side are on the right road under Alan Stubbs after they made it a frustrating Sunday afternoon for himself and his fellow Hearts attackers Billy King, Osman Sow and Soufian El Hassnaoui.
“Hibs have improved,” he said. “They were much better than in previous games against us. They did well and played some good stuff, particularly in the first half. The second half was better for us. In fact, Hibs scoring at half-time was probably a good thing in a way for us because it meant we had to come out the traps a bit in the second half and try and get back in the game.”
Despite Hearts enjoying plenty of possession after the break, they struggled to find any penetration in the final third. In the end, it was left to defender Ozturk, whose only two senior goals came for 1461 Trabzon last season, to save the day. Nicholson has seen his team-mate try his luck with shots like that in training, but admitted he was one of the many Hearts-minded people urging the confident Turk not to be bother on this particular occasion, fearful that he would merely be blowing Hearts’ last opportunity of an equaliser by skying the ball into the top tier of Easter Road’s Dunbar End.
“What a strike it was from the big man, unbelievable,” said Nicholson. “He does it in training a lot to be fair to him but every time he goes to shoot in training, everybody shouts ‘no Alim, no!’ That’s what I did on Sunday, just as he was lining up to hit the ball, I was like ‘no, what are you doing?’ I’ll let him away with that one, though. It was different class. He’s delighted with it because he does work on it. He’s a hard-working player and he deserved that.”
Understandably, given the circumstances, Ozturk’s strike sparked bedlam among a Hearts support who had, to coin a phrase, been sucking the ball towards the Hibs goal in the last few minutes. “You could feel the support we had at the end,” said Nicholson. “I noticed Prince [Buaben] running right past everyone to get in with the fans after the goal. We were joking with him afterwards, asking him if he thought he had scored the goal. The fans were incredible when the goal in.”