Sam Nicholson’s pain mirrors that of every Hearts fan right now. Successive defeats by Hibs and Partick Thistle have detailed a worrying lack of desire within some players, and Nicholson isn’t frightened to call them out.
The winger has supported Hearts since childhood and was visibly angry in the wake of Saturday’s 2-0 loss at Firhill. He termed it “embarrassing” following last week’s insipid Scottish Cup exit at Easter Road.
This was supposed to be the game in which Ian Cathro and his players began atoning for the unacceptable nature of that Hibs defeat. Instead, they produced another dismal effort and finished with another deafening chorus of jeers ringing in their ears heading towards the Firhill dressing-rooms. Nicholson hinted that some of his colleagues have yet to properly grasp what is required in the Ladbrokes Premiership after nine new signings arrived in Gorgie last month. Many of them are on short-term contracts until the summer and there are serious questions about whether they care enough.
“If I’m being honest, it was actually embarrassing. I just thought nobody really stood up to be counted for the team,” said Nicholson, candidly. “We let everyone down, the usual stuff that’s said when stuff like this happens. It’s coming from the heart and it’s true. Nobody earned their jersey.
“We’re too busy thinking: ‘We’re Hearts, they’re Partick Thistle.’ It doesn’t work like that. You need to win battles, you need to show a bit of heart. It’s strange, it’s something we’re going to need to change. If we don’t change it, then it will be a hard end to the season.
“We’ve got the players to do it. You can sit there and play pretty football and pass the ball about but in Scotland you need to win your battles. You need to earn the right to play. We haven’t done that in the last two games. “Even caring – caring for the club, caring for the fans. You saw the amount of people who travelled there on Saturday. Every single one of them were let down. Not one of them could pick out anything good. If you don’t care about that, don’t care about people’s reactions, don’t care about how the travelling fans feel, you’ve got something wrong with you, in my opinion. I’m not saying people don’t care. I’m saying people should be going out of their way to fight and do everything they can for the team.”
Nicholson was a late first-half substitute for Jamie Walker, who suffered a head knock. Walker captained Hearts with Perry Kitchen on the substitutes’ bench, so Nicholson took the armband and tried to show the required leadership.
His team were 1-0 down to Kris Doolan’s early goal when he entered the fray. Doolan’s strike exposed some woeful defending by Lennard Sowah, shunted in to centre-back when a calf injury ruled out Aaron Hughes 45 minutes from kick-off. In truth, the Hearts defence looked disjointed throughout the afternoon.
Esmael Goncalves’ red card for two cautions – dissent and a late tackle – compounded the misery with an hour played. And then Liam Lindsay, the Partick Thistle centre-back, produced a terrific finish to secure victory 17 minutes from the end.
Hearts’ biggest failing was allowing Thistle an ridiculous time on the ball in midfield and gifting them space in the penalty area too.
By full-time, the 1349 fans who had travelled from the Capital were irate. They gave their team and coaching staff pelters as they walked down the touchline “It’s horrible but we deserve it. There’s no point saying: ‘We shouldn’t be getting booed by the fans’. If you don’t deserve to be cheered, you won’t be cheered. That’s my opinion,” continued Nicholson.
“I was on the bench and I saw something had to change. I got the ball and tackled somebody, I got booked although I didn’t feel it was a yellow card. It was the ref’s decision. His words were: ‘Another tackle and you’re off.’ That stopped me putting myself about.
“I’m not the biggest guy but I’ll put myself about for the club. I couldn’t put my foot in and show how much I cared. I wanted to run my heart out for the team. I just feel like we’re just not the same. In the last two games, something’s really not there.”
Asked if the missing industry is down to so many new arrivals during the January transfer window, Nicholson replied: “These people have played for big teams. Hearts is a massive club. I wouldn’t say that’s the issue. We have to work to find out what the issue is.
“People are coming off the pitch sweating, so they are putting something in. It’s just certain factors that we can’t find out why it’s not working. People deserve an explanation. I’m not sure about learning lessons. It’s like we’re relying on certain things to happen. We’ve got to make it happen, we can’t expect it.”
Cathro was similarly deflated and didn’t mince his words either after his 14th game in charge of Hearts. His record so far is four wins, four draws and six defeats.
“It’s a difficult moment. We said on Wednesday night that we didn’t do enough in a game of that magnitude to give everybody what they needed to see from the team that they love. On Saturday, we didn’t do it either.
“Everything that was said on Wednesday, it’s the same situation. We have to progress. What’s important is that everyone is together and clear about what their responsibilities are. The responsibility is to find more and be clear and honest with themselves about what everyone is giving.
“That is what, through time, earns back the trust of the fans. And remember it was me who said we had to do that. I said that, I put that out and I accept the responsibility. I chose to do that, it wasn’t an accusation, and now we have to do that.”
Supporters are correct to voice their discontent loudly, he added. “I see valid questions but I need to tell the truth. I took the responsibility to say we’d lost the trust so I am comfortable with that. This is what these difficult moments are for. We need to be clear, strong and focused and deal with it privately. “Do I want the fans to be patient? No. I want them to come and expect us to be perfect from the start of the game. I want them to be the way they are. I want them to be how they feel. That’s what makes playing for this club a little more difficult than others. It matters so much and the fans are powerful. I want them to feel how they feel and be how they are. Make it difficult for us, make it challenge, make there be pressure. That’s never going to change.”
It would be wrong not to mention Thistle’s controlled and efficient display. They are pushing hard for a top-six Premiership place under the astute Alan Archibald. “I thought we managed the game really well,” he said. “We had to stop Hearts playing. I know they got a lot of bad press after the Edinburgh derby but they’ve still got good players so we had to stop them.
“We made it a little bit ugly at the start and it worked. It was important we started well. Kris Doolan was brilliant and he’ll be disappointed he didn’t get another goal. Him and Chris Erskine were the catalysts for our performance.”