The “big, physical Hearts” label has been dug out and pinned on Robbie Neilson’s side by several critics lately. Some have even suggested director of football Craig Levein is behind tactics and team selection. Saturday’s 5-1 win over Inverness should help disperse such theories, according to winger Sam Nicholson.
An enthralling display of attacking, entertaining football brought Hearts their first league win of the season. Some sublime passing and movement led to goals of the highest quality – not exactly in keeping with a robust, industrious team who just shell long balls to giant strikers.
Like everyone else inside the Tynecastle dressing room, Nicholson is aware of the naysayers’ comments. Carping about Hearts’ style of play is nothing new, for rival teams have often spoken about physicality before travelling to Gorgie down the years.
A Europa League exit to tiny Birkirkara of Malta last month, followed by an opening league defeat against Celtic and a League Cup exit to St Johnstone left a number of Hearts fans angry. While some questioned Neilson, media pundits asked if Levein was having more influence.
Inside the camp, there remained a togetherness and belief that coaching methods would bear fruit. That came on Saturday, when big physical Hearts produced a scintillating performance with the ball on the ground.
“That just goes down to other teams’ comments on us, saying we like a physical game. We proved on Saturday how we can play,” said Nicholson, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “It starts with Don Cowie’s first goal, the movement was incredible, and from there we really hit it off. The boys became more and more confident and we scored at vital times.
“There is a lot of ability in our team. We’ve just been taking the other comments as praise. People think we’re just a physical side, that’s great. Every single one of our players can play, we all have technical ability. I mean, I’m not going to be a physical player, am I?
“If people want to say that about us, it’s good. That means they’re worried about us. The comments can keep coming. We’re going to stick together as a team, with the manager, and let people talk. We’ll do our talking on the pitch.
“Things haven’t gone the way we wanted over the last few weeks but we were patient and we knew it was going to come. Saturday is something we need to keep building on. This weekend, we need to go out and do the same thing. We’ve sort of put pressure on ourselves, which is good. We’ve put expectations in the minds of our fans by winning 5-1, so now we have to keep living up to them.”
As head coach, Neilson suffered more criticism than anyone after disappointment in Europe. Losing to Celtic and St Johnstone saw the pressure intensify, but his players remained steadfastly behind him.
“The boys just ignore it, that’s just people’s opinions,” stated Nicholson. “There are going to be people in the stands who don’t like you individually. There might be people who don’t like me as a player. We can’t let it affect us. There are always going to be negatives and positives around football, it just depends on how you take the negatives.
“I think we’re showing the right attitude with the negative comments, not that there’s a lot of them. At the end of the day, it’s just people’s opinions, you brush it off. We know we’ve got a job to do.
“We’re showing we’re behind the manager by working away every single day in training, doing everything he asks of us. It paid off on Saturday and hopefully we can repay the manager even more because he’s been brilliant over the last few seasons. He got us promoted, he got us third place last season, which is brilliant for a newly-promoted club. We want to continue repaying him and the fans.”
Staying strong in the eye of a storm is never easy. Hearts kept faith that their performances against Celtic and St Johnstone deserved greater reward, and that continuing those standards would eventually pay off. Everything clicked into place against Inverness, helped somewhat by the visitors’ erratic defending.
“We’ve been waiting for that result. In the previous few games, we’ve played really well and not got the results we wanted,” admitted Nicholson. “I think it was going to take time until we had a game like Saturday, when we passed the ball well and created chances.
“The effort and commitment from the boys in the last few weeks has been brilliant. We feel a wee bit hard done by in the St Johnstone game and the Celtic game. We put everything into them and didn’t get anything. Saturday was different. We put everything into it again and we got the results we wanted.
“It’s brilliant for our confidence. We’ve had a hard start. After the first few games, we didn’t expect it to be like this. No-one was really low on confidence because we knew it was only a couple of games and there’s still a long way to go in the season. We’re on the right path now with our first win. We want to win all our games but it’s not the worst start. It’s up to us to turn it round.”
Nicholson scored the fourth and fifth goals to end a six-month drought. Last time his name appeared on Hearts’ scoresheet was against Hibs in the Scottish Cup back in February. He admitted needing to improve over the summer and was grateful for a timely confidence boost at the weekend.
“Everyone needs that at times. Towards the end of last season, like the season before, my form died down a bit. That can have affect your confidence but my attitude has been that I need to stay confident and believe in myself. I’ve done that and I got the goals I wanted on Saturday. It’s been while since I last scored.”
When you have new strikers backheeling the ball into your path, as Bjorn Johnsen did for Nicholson’s first goal, scoring becomes a whole lot easier. “I was just gambling running in behind,” smiled the winger.
“I know Bjorn has the ability to do stuff like that. I’ve seen him do it in training so, as soon as the ball came in to him, I shouted to let him know I was making the run through. Thankfully, he pulled off an unbelievable bit of skill and the ball came through for me to score. I thanked him for that. I’ll need to try and set a goal up for him now.”