Sam Nicholson: Time to get tough

Sam Nicholson has now started seven games in a row

Sam Nicholson has now started seven games in a row

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Some enjoy the brutal skirmishing that goes on every week in the Scottish Premiership.

Some thrive on the masculinity of it all and can easily engage with football that is sometimes more akin to warfare than entertainment.

Sam Nicholson is the opposite and makes no apology for it. The Hearts winger openly admits that aerial challenges and battling for second balls is not his game. He is far more cultured and technical in his approach, but has been forced to adapt quickly this season.

Being promoted from Hearts’ under-20 side to the first team has brought a rude awakening for the 19-year-old. He often finds himself battered from one touchline to another by hulking defenders who are willing – sometimes determined – to trample him into the ground in order to reach the ball first.

Life at senior level has been one big culture shock for Nicholson, who concedes he is still trying to find his feet as the campaign approaches its final stages. “It’s definitely been an eye-opener because the under-20s is totally different,” said the player, speaking exclusively to the Evening News.

“You find a lot of teams aren’t going for second balls at that level. They aren’t really worried about the score in under-20 games either, they’re only concerned with developing the players. I think that’s important and it’s the right thing to do, but as soon as you step up to the first team it’s about the points. It doesn’t matter how you get them, as long as you get them. It’s a wee bit hard to get used to.

“It’s not really my game, trying to take bodies and stuff like that. I’m not that kind of player. I’d rather get on the ball and play but some games aren’t about that side of things. It’s just about digging in and it tests your character as a player.

“If that’s not your type of game, then you need to change and adapt to it and make sure you’re winning second balls and stuff like that. It’s not the easiest thing to do but a lot of us are still young and we’re going to need to learn how to just adapt to it.”

Improving his physique is the natural way for any young player to cope against uncompromising opponents. Nicholson has been a regular in the Riccarton gym this season, however working out is something else which doesn’t exactly come naturally.

“Me and the gym don’t see eye to eye,” he laughed. “I try my best and the sports scientists at Hearts are really good. They’ve got me in the gym three and four times a week and I feel it’s helping a wee bit.

“I’m playing against fully-grown men and obviously I’m still growing so occasionally I do struggle with the physical side of it. I suppose that will come in time.”

Like many youth academy graduates who found themselves playing first-team football for Hearts this season, Nicholson faces a dilemma in the gym. Bulking up on muscle is necessary but it is crucial to strike the correct balance between building body strength and becoming too heavy.

“That’s what the sports scientists are saying to us,” continued the winger. “They’re telling us the amount of gym time you do is important. You divide it by the rest you take as well because it’s just as important to rest. If you bulk up too much and you become too big, you’re just going to lose your pace.

“That’s especially important for wingers but it’s the same for all players because no-one wants to lose pace. The aim is to get quicker, faster and stronger. It’s hard to balance everything out.”

Manager Gary Locke has started Nicholson in Hearts’ last seven matches after using him only fleetingly prior to Christmas. The chance to stake his claim has certainly gone down well with a player who hails from a family of Hearts supporters.

“My family are all Hearts fans so they’re really pleased with my progress but they’re also just as down as me when we lose,” he said. “I’m really happy I’m starting to get a lot of games now. We want to win every match and we’re trying our best to stay up. We’ll keep going till it’s mathematically impossible.

“We get told before every game that, if we’re down, try to stay positive and things will come. As long as we stay positive then we can get something. I’m really happy when we get a win, obviously. I feel we’ve started playing better football. The fans, the gaffer, the coaching staff and the players are all saying we’re enjoying it more when we’re playing better football.

“Between now and the summer I want to play as many games as possible to try and improve and develop as a player.

“I suppose that’s up to the gaffer and his opinion, as well as how I play when I’m out on the pitch. The manager is always watching to see who is impressing. He’s said that, if people are working hard and doing well, he’s going to play them. We all want to be in the plans for next season as well.”