TOUGH assignments continue for Sam Nicholson and a crowd of young Hearts internationalists in Angers this Thursday. After a punishing 3-0 defeat by St Johnstone at Tynecastle, they face highly-fancied France in a vital European Under-21 Championship qualifier with Scotland.
Nicholson, John Souttar, Jordan McGhee, Liam Smith and Jack Hamilton are joined in Ricky Sbragia’s squad by their club colleague Billy King, who is on loan to Rangers. If any of the above considered Murray Davidson an uncompromising opponent at the weekend, they may get a shock in the Pays de la Loire region of western France.
Adrien Rabiot, a goalscorer for Paris Saint Germain against Chelsea in the Champions League two weeks ago, is the linchpin of the French Under-21 side. He keeps good company. Corentin Tolisso, the Lyon midfielder, plus forwards Sebastien Haller and Enzo Crivelli are also mainstays. One consolation for Scotland is that Kingsley Coman’s rampaging displays at Bayern Munich have earned him promotion to the senior France squad.
Scotland Under-21s face France away before a home tie against Northern Ireland in Paisley on Tuesday. While some Hearts colleagues get a rest during international fortnight before resuming the quest for a Europa League place, the relentless schedule continues for those in the Under-21 squad.
“It’s probably going to be the toughest game we’ve had,” said Nicholson of Thursday’s match in the Stade Jean Bouin. “Rabiot has played in the Champions League and scored against Chelsea. It’s a massive test for us but it’s up to us how we approach it. We can’t go out fearing these teams. We have to take the game to them. We’re looking for three points.
“If you don’t want to play at that level in football, there’s no point being in the game. You want to achieve the highest level possible. Seeing them up there and being able to go and test ourselves against them will give us a good idea of where we are in football, how far off we are and how we can get there.”
If there was a slight hint of solemnity about the Hearts contingent when they arrived at the Scotland team hotel, it was probably to be expected after Saturday’s disappointment. “It’s not good preparation but, when something like that happens, you just need to be professional and not let it affect you,” said Nicholson. “Going away with Scotland Under-21s, I can’t let Saturday distract me. I need to give my best. We’ve got some massive games coming up and we need three points to move up the table and try to qualify.”
France beat Scotland 2-1 at Pittodrie last October, with Tolisso scoring what proved to be the winner. A home draw with Ukraine the following month leaves Sbragia’s side fourth in Group Three. They sit five points behind second-placed France and six behind leaders Iceland, but with a game in hand on both nations.
Nicholson added: “Ricky has based his squad on who is ready and to be there is a massive thing for me and my family. I really look forward to it. Everyone in the squad is ready and it’s going to be massive test for us against France and Northern Ireland. Like at Hearts, we all know there are things to be achieved at international level with the 21s. We want to qualify.”
Having started last time against the French, Nicholson stressed he feels ready to play his part again despite the demands at club level with Hearts. “Whether Ricky starts me or not, I don’t know. I’ll be trying to push for a start like every other person in the squad. They’ll all be looking to play because there’s nothing better than playing for your country.
“I feel fit. It’s obviously a long season and you can feel tired at this point or fresh, it sometimes depends on the day. Some people need a rest during a season, others can go right through. It’s down to how you take care of your body and how it reacts to all the training and games.
“I want to play as many games as I can and I want to start them all. That’s natural. The manager’s decision on Saturday was to go with a different team and leave me on the bench and I respect that 100 per cent. When that happens, you just need to go and give it your all when you come on and try to impress.”
All of the Tynecastle contingent are expected to play important roles for their country over the next week. Hamilton will start in goal, McGhee and Souttar are expected to be paired together in central defence and there is a chance Smith will start at right-back. Further forward, Nicholson and King are the most experienced wingers in the group.
“It’s massive for Hearts and all credit to the club that we have so many players in the Scotland Under-21 squad. I think it’s because Hearts are used to bringing young players and bringing them through. This is a testament to that,” said Nicholson.
“Liam has been a player who has waited patiently. With Callum Paterson being injured, sometimes you need that in football to get your chance and I think he’s taken it well. Big John’s performances speak for themselves. He’s been different class since he came to Hearts. He’s been in the Scotland Under-21 squad before and this will be a game he’s more than capable of playing well in.
“There are players in the squad from other clubs that we’ve played against. It’s a good measure of how far Hearts have come. I can’t imagine anyone will let what happened against St Johnstone affect them going away with Scotland. Yes, we were on a downer because we lost but we’re third in the league and we just came up from the Championship. We’ve had an incredible season.”