Muscles bulge from Conor Sammon’s biceps as he leans across the table. His hulking shoulders look capable of carrying a tipper truck. At 6ft 2in tall, he is very much the proverbial physical specimen.
However, it is the Irishman’s strength of character which has stood out most recently. Booed by Hearts fans in only his fourth appearance for the club against Birkirkara last month, Sammon has recovered defiantly inside four weeks.
He was warmly applauded by home supporters leaving the field last weekend after his self-confessed best display so far in a maroon jersey. He scored a fine header in the 5-1 win over Inverness at Tynecastle and rightly enjoyed the adulation when replaced by Bjorn Johnsen.
Sammon maintains he didn’t allow the jeering to unsettle him in the first place. He became a scapegoat during the Europa League qualifying loss to the Maltese club. He had scored Hearts’ goal, but moments from the end of the 2-1 defeat he learned all about the demands on him as his name was loudly booed when announced as the sponsors’ man of the match.
It was a harsh lesson, even for a battle-hardened 29-year-old striker who has played in England and at international level. Turning those jeers into cheers takes some doing inside such a short space of time. Sammon’s mindset was the key.
“I’m my own worst critic. I don’t need somebody to tell me if I’ve played good or bad. I know myself, it comes from experience over the years,” he says, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “Sometimes it’s down to not getting supply, maybe you aren’t making enough runs, there are loads of different areas.
“I’m the sort of person who doesn’t need someone to give him a kick up the a**e to get him going. I can do that from within. I’m a football fan myself, I support Man United, so I’ve been in that position as a fan. You’re watching a team one week, you think they didn’t perform and you get frustrated. When you’ve got such passionate fans at Hearts, who demand so much, it’s natural you’re going to hear some frustrations.
“Given my age and experience of good reactions and bad reactions, I’ve learned how to deal with those things. It’s an outside influence. As long as you can remain focused and confident in your own ability, you can handle it. I can take that sort of criticism. Of course you can hear it on the pitch. I’m not oblivious to it.
“What happens is that it just pushes you on. When the chips are down, people’s true characters are revealed. I’ve never been one to shy away from getting on the ball or putting myself in front of goal. I understand how fans can work sometimes. They can go from frustration one week and then things change with a good performance.”
Last week’s stylish victory certainly helped. Sammon’s uneasy start to life in Edinburgh after signing a three-year deal with Hearts in June would have broken other players, though. In his case, mental resolve proved even more crucial than the more obvious physical attributes he displays.
“It wasn’t a big deal for me at all. Obviously I was aware of it [the criticism] but I don’t lose any sleep over it. I want to know I’ve prepared properly as a footballer. That gives me peace of mind. There will always be game where things don’t work out for you, or you don’t show your full potential. I can sleep at night knowing I’ve given it 100 per cent and prepared to the best of my ability.
“I’ve got no real regrets in terms of professionalism, how I’ve prepared for a game, whether it’s sleep or getting the right nutrition or whatever. I’m aware there will be times I’ll come off the pitch thinking I’ve not performed to the best of my ability, but that’s part of being a footballer. You just have to respond.”
Which he certainly did. His own progress mirrors that of his team after an uneasy start to the season. Losing in Europe preceded an opening-day league defeat to Celtic and a League Cup exit at the hands of St Johnstone. Inverness suffered the brunt of the frustration within the Hearts camp.
“We really clicked last week, scored some really good goals and had good movement with good options and lots of chances. We could’ve scored more goals,” says Sammon. “On a personal level, I’d say it was the best game I’ve played for Hearts so far. I got my first league goal since I came here and people are getting used to my style of play. I hope it’s the first of many.
“I’m confident going on to the pitch, whether I’ve scored in my last game or not. Naturally, you want to be scoring goals and getting on the end of things. That’s a big thing for me. When you come off the pitch and you’ve not had shots on goal, you’ve not got on the end of crosses or been in the thick of the action, that’s when you ask why. I’m really enjoying training day in and day out here. I feel I’m improving and that I will keep improving with the set-up and environment here.”
The challenge facing Hearts this weekend is to repeat the energetic, flowing football in Maryhill when they travel to Partick Thistle. They scored four goals on each of their last two visits to Firhill, winning 4-2 and 4-0 in April 2015 and October 2015 respectively.
“Saturday was a real taster of what we’re capable of. We need to continue it at Firhill tomorrow and also step up and do it against the biggest teams in the league,” explains Sammon, outlining the value in scoring early in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
“We scored early against Inverness, which makes a huge difference. It gives the team confidence and it gives the fans a boost. I’ve played as an opposition player at Tynecastle and I know how difficult it is when you go behind and that atmosphere gets going.
“The fans are gunning for more goals and it does give you that buzz now as a home player to keep pushing and getting more goals.
“I expect a really tough game tomorrow. We can take lots of positives from the Inverness game, from the scoreline and the way we played, but it’s in the past now. We have to become a team that demands the highest standards week in and week out. We can’t just turn it on at Tynecastle and then travel to an away game and think anything we get is a bonus.”
Jamie Walker is free from suspension for Hearts and Callum Paterson will play despite facing an uncertain future due to interest from Wigan Athletic in England.
“We need to have the mentality of going out to win every single game,” continues Sammon. “The coaching staff will have us fully prepared on Partick Thistle’s strengths, weaknesses and everything.
“They’ve only played two league games so far, they’ve got one win and one defeat so it’s going to be a tough fixture. We’ll have to be 100 per cent on our game to get anything from it.”