Sam Nicholson could certainly be forgiven for having a skip in his step as he arrives at Tynecastle for today’s Ladbrokes Premiership clash with Partick Thistle.
There can’t be many better places in the country for young, talented footballers to be plying their trade than Gorgie at the moment. Hearts are top of the league with a 100 per cent record, full houses at every home game and a strong squad hungry for more success.
Couple that with a call-up to the Scotland Under-21 squad this week – along with four of his team-mates – and the winger won’t be short of confidence as Robbie Neilson’s side aim to make it five wins from five this afternoon. However, the Riccarton academy graduate has already experienced the other end of the spectrum during his short career.
Nicholson made his top-team breakthrough in the club’s relegation season of 2013/14 amid a backdrop of administration, transfer embargoes and fears for the club’s very future. On the pitch, then manager Gary Locke was battling a 15-point deduction with a squad mostly comprised of teenagers and only two or three experienced pros to call on.
Despite almost constant positivity both off and on the pitch since Ann Budge completed her takeover in May 2014, Nicholson acknowledges that the club, as well as he and his young team-mates, are in their current position partly thanks to the trials of the season preceding her arrival. “It was never good what happened to the club at the time,” he said. “For the likes of me, Jordan McGhee, Billy [King], [Jamie] Walker and other young ones it was a help and it’s going to help us this season as well. The league has got better since the last time we played in it but at the time there was nothing wrong with chucking in the young boys and we’ve benefited from it.
“That season was tough. We had the 15-point deduction and were more focused on just trying to stay up. The manager at the time had a hard job because there was a lot of pressure on him. He couldn’t bring people in. Times have changed. The club’s in good shape and when the club’s going well everything’s good. The players are enjoying it and we’re winning – so we can’t be happier.”
There were signs towards the end of Locke’s reign that the younger members of his squad were beginning to get to grips with regular top-level football. Five wins and two draws in their final eight league fixtures of the season – including a 4-2 away win against today’s opponents – came too late to avoid relegation, but that winning mentality continued with a vengeance under Robbie Neilson as the Jambos ran away with last season’s Championship title. Nicholson added: “It’s incredible what’s changed. There’s a physical side to it and that was helped by what happened last season, playing in the Championship. We’re a bit more gritty. Some games aren’t pretty football but you have to dig in and fight and that’s helped a lot of us.
“Obviously it’s not my game, running and tackling people. I always get on the wrong end of it, but that’s something you learn in football and last season definitely helped.”
The home-grown contingent at Tynecastle have been helped to raise their game thanks to some shrewd additions by Neilson and Director of Football Craig Levein. Players such as Juanma, Juwon Oshaniwa and Blazej Augustyn have increased competition for places and ensured training has a more competitive edge – something Nicholson has welcomed.
“Because we’ve got new players in who have played at a really high standard, they’ve brought more to the table. We’re learning from it and, although training has always been competitive, everyone’s doing that bit more and if you do it in training, you do it in games.
“If you’re not doing something right, your team-mates are going to tell you. That’s good in football. If you’re slacking off, you’re going to be told.”
Whilst there’s pressure to maintain performance levels, the No.11 is adamant Hearts have the characters to handle it as expectation levels rise with every victory.
“No matter what game you’re playing, you’ve always got that pressure on you. You can’t play well in every game but you’ve got to do it as many times as you can.”