A sheepish grin stretches across Sam Nicholson’s baby face. His resemblance to Brazil’s World Cup star Oscar brings plenty comments, not least within the Hearts dressing-room.
As it’s mentioned, you sense he maybe wanted to keep the likeness to one of the world’s most recognisable footballers quiet. Nonetheless, having just signed up for another three years at Tynecastle, he is clearly happy for the accompanying banter to continue.
Life could be worse for young Nicholson, particularly if he resembled Ronaldinho instead of Oscar. He could also be looking for a new club given several more experienced team-mates were released by Hearts last month. In reality, there was little chance of that happening.
Whilst his lookalike Oscar dos Santos Emboaba Júnior is a key component of the Brazilian team trying to win the World Cup, Nicholson’s value to Hearts is rising fast. Director of football Craig Levein has publicly declared the 19-year-old one of Scotland’s most promising young footballers. A new long-term deal backs up that assertion.
The winger gained much notoriety during his debut season by gliding past opponents with similar ease to Oscar. Yet Nicholson’s career is still very much at the formative stage. He managed 26 appearances last season and became a first-team regular but international stardom and World Cups remain a pipe dream for this grounded young lad from Penicuik.
For the moment, he is focused on cementing a place in a new-look Hearts side next season – and fending off the carping about his appearance. “A couple of the boys are slagging me, saying I look like Oscar. Gary Oliver is probably the worst,” he laughs. “I’d rather they were comparing me with him as a player but I’m a wee bit off that I think. They are just saying I look like him and giving me a bit of stick, but you get that in the dressing room.
“Gary was the first one to mention it. Mark Ridgers joined in but I’m only getting it on Twitter from him now because he’s away [to St Mirren]. Any opportunity, Gary goes for it. I get on really well with Gary so I don’t mind. It’s just a bit of banter. I don’t really see the resemblance to be fair. I think they’re just trying to wind me up. It’s a bit more prominent just now because the World Cup is on. I’m not even able to bite back. I’m trying to link Gary with somebody but I don’t know who he looks like.”
The joking masks a serious determination within a player facing only his second season at senior level. The ink is still drying on his new contract but he was not short of admirers, with interest from Sunderland and other clubs. The decision to stay and continue his development in Gorgie, despite Hearts’ relegation to the Championship, was straightforward.
“I was flattered by the interest when I heard and obviously I had to look at all my options,” explains Nicholson. “At the end of the day, I thought I had to go somewhere that’s in the best interests for me playing and developing. Hearts is going to be the best thing for me. At this age, it’s not about the money. Not at all. It’s about development. I definitely feel I made the right decision. It’s important I play as much as I can and Hearts is the club I support so it wasn’t a hard decision.”
Having only returned from a holiday in Tenerife a few days ago, he is already working himself up to speed for pre-season training starting a week tomorrow. The gym has been visited and the muscles loosened as Nicholson sets an example which every aspiring young footballer should follow.
“I’ll be doing a lot of work before we go back for pre-season,” he says. “I want to get there as fit as I can. Throughout pre-season I’ll be working hard but so will everyone in the squad. I think it’s important you don’t take too much time off. It’s important you do get away and go on holiday. As soon as you’re back, that’s when the hard work starts.
“I don’t think you should wait until two days before pre-season. You should be trying to keep fit, which comes from having a professional attitude.”
Of course, seeing Hearts sign three new players – Morgaro Gomis, James Keatings and Soufian El Hassaoui – since emerging from administration last week will have fuelled his motivation further.
“The new faces is a good thing. It’s going to drive all the players to do more to try and achieve the game time they want,” says Nicholson. “Every player wants to play as much as possible. With more players coming in, the more fight you’ll have to show. We’re a close team, though, so it’s not like anyone will hold any grudges over game time.”
Robbie Neilson, Hearts’ new head coach, worked with the senior side last season whilst coaching the club’s under-20s. Nicholson hopes the impression he made last term lingers but is acutely aware he will be judged, like his colleagues, during pre-season. “I hope I’ve made some impression. I’m not really sure what Robbie’s views are on the team yet. It’s going to be down to what we do in pre-season to earn a place in the team. I don’t think anyone is going to look at last season, I think they’ll only look at this season and see how everyone’s doing. It won’t matter which team we play against next season, they’re going to come here to beat us. Hearts are a massive club and a lot of clubs who have been in the Championship for a few years are still big clubs.
“They’re all going to bring a good support here, and to Ibrox and Easter Road. Every team will want to come here and beat us. It’s up to us not to let them.”