Jimmy Nicholl stands on the edge of the Central Park pitch 30 minutes before every home game.
Disparaging remarks about the state of the place are nothing new to him. He is in his second stint as Cowdenbeath manager and loves hearing visiting players condemn his club’s ground for being run down. To him, it proves they can’t cope with playing there.
Hearts visit Central Park this weekend for the first time on league duty since Saturday, April 24, 1971. The place has changed little in the intervening years, save for a new main stand built in 1995. The old one caught fire in 1992 and the surviving half sits alongside the new structure. The tarmac oval track around the tight pitch, the meshed safety fences and the open terracing round the perimeter are all trademarks of Cowdenbeath FC.
Nicholl tries to use the bleak nature of the ground to his team’s advantage. He knows before a ball has been kicked who fancies it and who doesn’t because he listens to comments during warm-ups. Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson took 25 players there for a pre-season friendly to acclimatise and Nicholl is keen to see how they fare on Saturday.
“Hibs away and Hearts away were two of our biggest challenges this season,” he said today. “We lost 5-1 at Tynecastle having been 1-1 at half-time and the week before we were 2-1 up at Easter Road. Now Hearts are coming to us and it’s going to be cold, wet and windy. Then there’s the surroundings.
“I know exactly what it’s like for players coming here because I hear it every home game. I go and stand out on the park at half past two and I see the opposition coming out for their warm-up. I know what they’re saying. ‘Look at the state of this place’ and ‘what about this and that’. I’ve heard it. We’ve got to take advantage of that.
“It’s great when I hear stuff like that. I can say [to the Cowdenbeath players], ‘they don’t fancy it boys’. You can always tell ten or 15 minutes before a game. I could name you the teams, this year and last year, who just get on with it. I say to my players, ‘this team beat us here last time and the reason they beat us is because they don’t care about the surroundings’. They’re just good, professional players, who go about their job properly and have the right attitude. They don’t give a toss about the surroundings.”
Nicholl has graced some of world football’s greatest venues. He played at the top level in Scotland and England with Rangers and Manchester United and represented Nothern Ireland 73 times. He was right-back that famous night in Valencia’s Mestalla Stadium when the Irish beat host nation Spain 1-0 to reach the knockout stage of the 1982 World Cup.
Central Park is the other end of the spectrum, but Nicholl is not a man who does egos. He embraces football in all its guises. “I remember years ago playing for Toronto Blizzard on our home pitch, which was astroturf, and it was the worst astroturf in world football. It really was horrific,” he recalled.
“People were coming to us not fancying it and we knew it and we took advantage. The group of players Robbie has won’t be thinking along those lines at the weekend. I don’t think so. They’re all young, ambitious, determined young players. I doubt there will be any chink in their armour at all so we will need to be on top of our game.”
Saturday’s fixture will also allow Nicholl to accurately assess who is the best team in the most competitive Scottish second tier ever. Rangers and Hibs have both beaten Cowdenbeath home and away, but the manager will reserve judgment until Hearts have been to Fife. “Somebody asked me after Rangers beat us 3-0 here who is the best of the three. I said I’d judge it after Hearts have been here.
“Hibs came here and beat us 2-1. It’s a character test whenever anybody comes here. We know they’ve got all the ability in the world, we know that. But this is a test because of the surroundings and the size of the pitch. If Hearts come to our place and beat us well, I’ll say, ‘well, they’ve beat us convincingly home and away’. We’ve got to make sure we don’t make it easy for them.”
The motivation for the home players is to try to take a scalp which no-one else in the league has claimed so far. Nicholl saw his players lose narrowly at Ibrox last weekend and took positives despite the heavy defeat in Gorgie in September. He acknowledged the size of the task facing his part-timers.
“I was delighted with them at half-time at Tynecastle because it was 1-1. It’s a very intimidating place and it was a new experience for some of our players, but we were riding high. They showed they could cope in that first half,” he said. “I know we lost 5-1 in the end. My goodness, the start Hearts had to that second half. They just bombarded us. We made mistakes and had lapses in concentration but that’s not taking away the quality from Hearts’ side.
“It’s a massive challenge for our boys. I’m saying to them that they’re playing the league leaders, who are going well in every single department. They’ve got to rise to the challenge. It’s the same every week. One week you’re trying to get something at Ibrox, then the next Saturday you’re trying to win points at home to Hearts, and then we’ve got to go and try to get something at Queen of the South after this. It’s just never-ending, but it’s great.
“It’s better than the alternative – not being in the Championship. Everything the players worked for last year, beating Dunfermline in the play-offs, was for days like Saturday against Hearts. If we do something against Hearts, it’s massive for our club when you get points you don’t expect to get.”