Hearts forward Craig Wighton: How Arbroath and Robbie Neilson helped me fall back in love with football
The in-form Dundonian scored the winner for the Jambos in a testing encounter against the Red Lichties on Friday night, downing the team that helped reignite his career at the start of 2020.
Wighton netted three times in five games for Arbroath after then-Hearts boss Daniel Stendel decided he wasn’t part of his first-team plans as club hurtled towards relegation. Coronavirus abruptly brought to a close his time under Dick Campbell, but also the German’s at Tynecastle. The arrival of Robbie Neilson has given the 23-year-old a new lease of life in Edinburgh.
The diminutive forward has bulked up during lockdown and has improved his all-round game too. This goal, a deft lob over Derek Gaston after coming on as a seventh-minute substitute for Josh Ginnelly, was his fourth of the season and came on the back of a hat-trick against Raith in the Betfred Cup. This is the best we’ve seen Wighton in a Hearts shirt.
"I loved my time here, it was cut short due to coronavirus,” Wighton said as he stood in Gayfield’s bitterly cold main stand. “The games I played and the training ... it had been a tough time before that, but Dick gave me a chance to come here and play a few games and start getting my confidence back. Obviously I'm really grateful for that."
Did Arbroath help him fall back in love with football. "Probably, to be fair,” admitted Wighton. “It had been a tough 18 months. I hadn't played a lot of football and just to get back playing regularly, and the fact they were flying at the time, made it enjoyable. You're scoring goals and winning games.”
It’s not just Arbroath, though, that ha made the difference. Neilson’s arrival has brought the best out of him, a new coach to learn from and flourish under after Stendel and, to an extent, Craig Levein.
"He's just probably believed in me a bit more,” Wighton said of Neilson. “He spoke to me, told me exactly what he wants so I can go and work on that. He's been honest with me from the start, so yeah, he's been really good. I think it's the same for all the boys. You can see the confidence we've been playing with. Even the players he has brought in are good. I think we've got a good squad and we've just got to keep winning games.”
Hearts now turn their attentions to Saturday’s Scottish Cup semi-final against Hibs. Wighton hopes he has done enough in recent weeks to remain in Neilson’s main plans within a competitive squad.
“I want to make an impression, whether I'm on the bench or if I start,” added Wighton. “I want to add more goals to my game. I've started the season well in the games that I've played, but the boys that are in the starting XI are doing really well, so it's hard to get in. Gino [Josh Ginnelly] got injured, which is unfortunate, but it's up to me when I come on to make an impact and thankfully I've done that.”