MOURNEVIEW Park in Lurgan – capacity 4160 – is a far more serene environment than Sam Nicholson is used to.
The winger has thrived on Tynecastle sell-outs nearing 17,000 during Hearts’ profound start to the Scottish Premiership. Tomorrow, he is with Scotland Under-21s for their opening European Championship qualifier in Northern Ireland.
Don’t expect him to view the surroundings as any kind of negative. Attitude is everything with Nicholson. Whether it’s top of the league in Scotland or the home of part-time Glenavon FC, he is primed to apply himself to the same standard. Like everyone else in Ricky Sbragia’s Under-21 squad, the ultimate goal is promotion to the senior side. This is another chance to impress.
Nicholson is a key player for Hearts but a full international cap remains a distant dream. He only turned 20 this year and has made just one Under-21 appearance so far. He is content to be patient, something he admits wasn’t always part of his mindset. He watches Scotland and hopes one day to migrate to Gordon Strachan’s squad. For now, he is more than happy with his Under-21 status.
“It’s quite a long way away just now. They’re an incredible team,” he says of Strachan’s side. “You watch them and they’re pulling off great results against good teams and they’re playing well. It’s a wee bit away for me yet. It’s a dream but, when I was younger, I used to want everything yesterday. As I’ve got older, I’ve learned I can’t have it. Obviously I want to get there but I’m not in a rush.
“That outlook came when I started playing first-team football for Hearts. I was getting bothered that I was chucked in when I wasn’t ready. That’s the way it was at Hearts at the time. There was no other option when the club was in administration. I was like, ‘why am I not doing what I do in the under-20s?’ I realised I had to relax and it would come.
“Football is a slow process. You can’t expect everything to happen straight away. I did when I was younger, but not now. I’ve mellowed out a bit. You work hard and aim for it and, if you keep working, it’s going to come eventually.
“My dad had that chat with me. he’s good with stuff like that. He didn’t play at a massive level but he was a good player so he knows what he’s talking about. He actually had trials with Hearts when he was younger but he says his attitude wasn’t the best. He’s tried to guide me the other way.”
Alex Nicholson’s work has been hugely successful. His son is as dedicated and hard-working as any young footballer. He isn’t short on ability, either. Sbragia drew criticism earlier this year for admitting he left teenager Jack Harper, then with Real Madrid, out of a Scotland Under-19 squad in favour of physical players and runners. The Under-21 group travelling to Lurgan proves the coach isn’t preoccupied with physique.
Nicholson, Billy King, Ryan Gauld, Ryan Fraser, Jason Cummings and Ryan Christie all have technique and skill among their strongest assets. Sbragia will hope their craft can unlock the Irish defence tomorrow and perhaps dispel any lingering theories about him being “old school”.
“I don’t think that’s his philosophy,” says Nicholson. “We have a range of different players here. He’s looking at a squad to get through to the finals [in 2017]. I had him at under-19s when we qualified for the elite round. It was brilliant, he’s a good coach and he wants you to do well. He got that team through so there’s no reason he can’t do it with this group.
“For some games, you need all these wee technical players. At other times you need to be different. If you have a different range of players then you’re better equipped. We have players playing at a really high level. Ryan Fraser is on loan at Ipswich from Bournemouth. Gauldie is at Sporting Lisbon and it’s great being involved with these guys and seeing how they work.
“It’s good for my profile as I’m getting older to be involved at international level. The squad are together so we can build a good team mentality over the next few games. There are obviously people looking to see how the Under-21 players are doing at club level. I hope that’s how I got in.”
Scotland’s qualifying section f is unenviable. France, Ukraine, Macedonia and Iceland are alongside them and Northern Ireland in Group Three. Nicholson doesn’t need to be told that the last time Scotland reached a European Under-21 Championship was 1996. This brings fresh pressure at the start of any new campaign.
“That’s something you’ve got to deal with in football,” he says. “There will always be people pressurising you. People said at the start of the season that Hearts could win the league. You have to stay concentrated game by game and not let what others say get to you. I think there is pressure here. You’ve always got to be trying to impress and win games at international level.
“We’re looking to win tomorrow and we’ll go out aiming for that. I’m not going to say what I think the score will be but we’re out there to win and we’re aiming to qualify. It would be massive to get there. You want to play in big tournaments at any level to keep progressing. If we got through, it would be brilliant – a huge credit to ourselves and Scotland. A lot of the players are playing regularly at club level and have a lot of experience even at this age. That can only stand us in good stead.”