Being dropped has certainly jolted Hearts winger Sam Nicholson. “Maybe it has given me a rocket up the a**e that I need to start performing,” he says, with definite force in his voice.
Three competitive games into the new season, and with league football yet to commence, the 21-year-old finds himself fighting to get back into the Hearts team. It’s a struggle he is determined to win without mincing words or actions.
He started the very first Europa League qualifier against Infonet at Tynecastle, but was left out for the return leg in Estonia. He remained on the bench in Malta last week against Birkirkara as head coach Robbie Neilson named the same starting line-up.
Nicholson offers a candid assessment of his recent progress and says it is understandable that he isn’t playing. His form dipped towards the end of last season and he admits finding it difficult to recover.
Nontheless, recover he will. Patience will be vital as he bides his time amongst the substitutes but there are already signs of a revitalised player.
He showed real purpose with some attacking run in the final eight minutes of the 0-0 draw with Birkirkara in Paola after replacing Jamie Walker. Another energetic display in a closed-door game against Sunderland on Saturday reinforced his case further.
“It’s just like when I was breaking through. You’re trying to get into the team and that’s what it’s going to be like for me for the next few weeks. It’s all down to me, what I do in training and games. I need to perform like I was doing at the start of last season,” says Nicholson, speaking exclusively to the Evening News.
“Form dips, obviously. I’ve had my form dip before and it’s a mental thing that I need to get used to. I think it’s all in the mindset. Sometimes you don’t play well and it’s hard to get out of not playing well. Not playing the last couple of games, maybe it has given me a rocket up the a**e that I need to start performing. That’s what I’m going to do now.”
His confidence took a slight hit but that dates back to the final few weeks of last season. “You could say that. It was a hard season last season and I’d played a lot. I’ve played over 100 games now so it’s down to me to take my chances when I get on. It might be a blessing in disguise not to start and get a wee rest. I’m just trying to get back into the team.
“I want to play as many games as possible. When it came to the end of last season, I wasn’t up to scratch like I had been at the start. Maybe being taken out for a couple of games would’ve been good. Maybe not. I think a lot of it is about mindset.
“I used to let it play on my mind but I’m getting older and I’m getting more games under my belt. It’s totally down to me now. I need to fight my way back into the team. When the team is playing well, it’s harder. We’ve done well in the last two games.
“The boys won in Estonia last week so it’s hard to change the team when you’re winning. “The manager might go with the same team again this Thursday because the side he played in Malta did work.”
Taking his place on the opposite flank to Walker is Callum Paterson. Predominantly a right-back, he was shunted forward in Estonia in a ploy which paid dividends when he headed the opening goal. Neilson kept faith with that tactic against Birkirkara.
“He told me in Estonia he was going with Callum out wide. Callum’s delivery from there is different class, so that was totally understandable. I need to work on my delivery and start getting assists,” admits Nicholson.
“I came on in Malta on Thursday and I really wanted to go for it. Obviously, it’s not up to me if I start or not. That’s the gaffer’s decision. He decided I’m not starting and that’s fine. I’m still going to go in with the right attitude, ready for when I come on.”
Hearts will be confident of dispensing with the Maltese in what is effectively now a one-off match in Edinburgh. A disciplined display amid stifling Mediterranean heat earned a clean sheet and put Neilson’s side in control of their Europa League second qualifying round tie.
“A 0-0 away wasn’t too bad, considering we were playing in a heat we’re not used to,” explains Nicholson. “Birkirkara were quite organised, they had a good result last season against West Ham which showed they’re no mugs.
“I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest. I thought they were well organised and, if a team is well organised, they are always hard to break down. We’d gone over the videos and they looked alright. There were times when we did break them down.
“I thought we were the better team and deserved more than what we got. Now we have a game at home against them and we hope to take full advantage.
“We know what we’re dealing with now. It’s still going to be a really hard game. They’re going to do the exact same thing. We just need to take our chances.”
Nicholson must heed his own advice and seize any chances of his own if he is to be reinstated to Hearts’ starting line-up soon.