Sam Nicholson is already licking his lips at the prospect of going head-to-head against some of the country’s top defenders next season.
The Tynecastle outfit are on the verge of clinching their return to the top flight next season as champions after taking this year’s Championship by storm – 20 points ahead of nearest challengers and Capital rivals Hibs.
Hearts’ berth back in Scottish football’s top tier next season will be confirmed by the close of play tomorrow if victory over Falkirk this afternoon is followed by Hibs’ failure to overcome Rangers at Easter Road.
And while in agreement the title is all but wrapped up for the Gorgie men, Nicholson, without wanting to commit too far in advance, is eagerly awaiting making a return to the likes of Celtic Park and Pittodrie next season.
“No matter where you are you want to be competing at the highest level you can,” Nicholson admitted. “The Premiership is the highest in Scotland so for us players there is that incentive to be playing against the best. If that’s the case that we are in the top flight next year then we’ll be looking forward to it.
“We haven’t really thought about any targets [for next season] but I think we can do well. We’re really close as a team, we work hard for each other and that shows on the pitch and I definitely think we’re capable of doing that against better players.”
The anticipation of where and when Hearts will seal the Championship crown has been mooted amongst players and fans alike for a number of weeks now, but this weekend represents the first opportunity for the title to be officially engraved in Hearts’ name.
“It’s just been recently when people started to say we could win it in a couple of weeks,” Nicholson continued. “We’ve just been trying to take it game by game and Robbie [Neilson] has been telling us to keep the right mindset and win games.
“We haven’t really discussed it as a team as we’re just focused on the match with Falkirk. Depending on what happens tomorrow [between Hibs and Rangers], it’s not really down to us as we can’t do anything about it. We just need to win our own game.
“It’s always been the target since the start of the season to win the league. If it happens tomorrow then brilliant but we don’t really mind. I think it would be much better if it happened in front of our own supporters but as long as we win the league then that’s all that matters.
“I think Hearts fans would prefer us to win it at home and sell-out against Queen of the South next Saturday but, at the same time, I think the fans are like the players and don’t mind how we win it.”
Nicholson played the full 90 minutes in the 3-2 defeat to Peter Houston’s Falkirk in January, Hearts’ only blip in the league this season.
But the 20-year-old was quick to point out just how useful this Falkirk side are having yet to taste defeat in any competitive fixture this year.
“Falkirk are a really good side,” he said. “Not a lot of sides have been to Tynecastle this season and given us a really hard game. I suppose Hibs have as well, but Falkirk are a really strong side, so we know what we need to do.
“I don’t think they got off to the season too well but that’s changed. They are a really tight unit and play some good football so we’ll need to be on our game to get a positive result.”
With that in mind, Nicholson believes Falkirk, currently just outside the play-off zone in fifth and a point behind Queen of the South, might just prove to be the underdogs should they manage to cement their place in the top four come May.
“The play-offs could go any way,” Nicholson stressed. “It’s all about the team that wants it the most on the day, but they [Falkirk] could be one to watch if they get in. It could get scrappy and it will be hard as every team in the Championship can be a good side on their day. If we do win the league then it means we don’t have to go through them and we’ll finish that wee bit earlier. It will be good to sit back and watch them knowing we’ve done our job.”
Even more pivotal, though, has been the upturn in fortunes at Tynecastle in the past 12 months. Taken to the brink of extinction under former owner Vladimir Romanov’s stewardship which culminated in the the heartache of relegation last season, Nicholson says those dark days are now a thing of the past.
“It’s incredible how much the club has changed over the last 12 months,” he said. “It will be great for the fans with what they put in last season when we were struggling so it’s great for us players to give something back.
“I’m sure we’ll have plenty of time to celebrate come the end of the season so we have that to look forward to.”