Sam Nicholson’s Hearts future is on hold until he regains peak fitness. The winger insists he would happily stay at Tynecastle despite rejecting a new contract offer, so impressed is he with the new coaching regime of Ian Cathro and Austin MacPhee.
Nicholson’s contract expires at the end of the season and he has already refused one proposal to extend it. For now, he and head coach Cathro have agreed to revisit the issue once minor pain and swelling in the player’s knee dissipates. He is just back after a four-month absence following surgery. Hearts hope he can be persuaded to ignore interest from elsewhere and continue a ten-year association with the Edinburgh club after coming through their youth academy.
The 22-year-old certainly isn’t against the idea. Under FIFA rules, Hearts would be entitled to between £400,000 and £450,000 compensation if he leaves on freedom of contract this summer. Nicholson is firstly focused on achieving 100 per cent fitness but admitted that a new contract in Gorgie would appeal to him. “Right now, I’ve discussed it with the gaffer and we both agreed that the most important thing for me is to sort out my knee,” said the winger, who made his 100th league appearance against Rangers last week. “I’ve been out for four months. Once I get my knee sorted, then we can discuss things. Before the gaffer came here, he wouldn’t have seen a lot of me. He would’ve seen bits of me but he has to judge me when I’m fully fit to see if he wants to do something.
“It’s a decision the gaffer will make after a while. We’re both on good terms that he will judge me when I’m fit. The most important thing is the knee. The recovery has gone well so far. Because I’ve played four games in 13 days, I get the occasional day waking up and my knee is sore. It’s just a bit of swelling and then it goes down. That’s the aftermath of having the operation. Once that clears up and I’m fully fit again, it’s going to be different.
“I enjoy it every day here. Coming back from injury has put a smile back on my face. When you’re injured, you’re in every day doing your rehab programme. It’s hard and it’s boring but you’ve got to do it and stay positive. Callum Paterson is out for a lot longer and he’s coming in with a great attitude right now. I had to do the same. Now I’m back training and playing and I’m buzzing. If my future is here, I’ll be more than happy with that.
“I’ve been here ten years. If I’m here, I’m going to develop, it’s as simple as that. I’ve been back in training for a few weeks now and, with the coaching, I can already see myself improving. I’m getting coached to make certain runs and I’m delighted to be amongst that.
“I’m really pleased to get back after about four months. It’s been quite stressful missing playing football. I’m enjoying being back involved although it’s hard because I’m still trying to get match fitness. The more games I play, the better I feel. I want to get back into the starting line-up as well but that’s going to take a while, obviously. The manager understands the situation I’m in regarding not being fit. It’s something we talk about.”
Nicholson’s return has coincided with an upturn in form and results. Hearts beat Rangers 4-1 last Wednesday and Motherwell 3-0 on Saturday as Cathro’s nine January signings made an immediate impact. Strangely, Nicholson hasn’t yet exploited the fact his reappearance has come at a timely juncture. You would expect him to mention it in the dressing room fairly soon, though.
“Now you’ve said that, it’s got me thinking,” he laughed. “The boys have been different class in the last two games. It’s good getting new faces in, people who have played in different leagues and at higher levels. It’s actually been quite an easy process for us as players despite so many new signings. The gaffer, Austin and Craig Levein [Hearts’ director of football] have brought in the right people. They’re easy to get on with but they’re also good footballers. We’ve been lucky that all the new guys have just come in and got on with everyone. That makes it easier to play together and bond.”
Two convincing wins also make it easier to enter a Scottish Cup Edinburgh derby against Hibs, which takes place at Tynecastle on Sunday. Neil Lennon and his Easter Road side cross the city as the top team in the Championship seeking to cause an upset despite being the cup holders. Hearts are aiming to ride the crest of a wave which rose, apparently from nowhere, against Rangers last midweek. They now enter a potentially thunderous derby with much more confidence and morale in their squad.
“No matter who we play, we’re ready. It’s good to see the change, from the game against Rangers and then the game against Motherwell,” said Nicholson. “We are obviously improving. What the gaffer has been trying to get across to us has eventually been taken on board. Sometimes that takes a while but we’ve bought into it and eventually it’s come together.
“Now, things are looking good for us. I’m delighted to be involved in this.”
Part of the reason he is delighted is that Cathro and MacPhee’s coaching methods appeal to him. That could be a crucial factor if he can indeed be convinced to sign that new deal and remain in Gorgie next season.
“Ian is really well respected in the dressing room,” said Nicholson. “Everything he’s saying, when he speaks to you individually, you buy into what he’s saying. We all know he’s been at these massive clubs in England and abroad and we can only improve by taking in his information. He’s trying to help us and, when you’ve got someone like that, it’s easier for the team to click.”
Nicholson, rightly, is wary of getting too carried away on either a personal or collective level. He is back playing but faces intense competition for a place on the wing, with Jamie Walker, Don Cowie, plus new arrivals Choulay, Dylan Bikey and Malaury Martin all vying for wide positions.
“It’s the same in every area now. The people we brought in are competing with players who were already in that position. Everyone is going to push each other and that’s good way for players to improve. That, in turn, helps the team. I imagine that’s what the gaffer wants and it’s probably going to happen for the rest of the season.”
Also, he has been long enough in senior football to know the evils of complacency.
“I don’t want to speak too soon and say: ‘We’ve clicked, this is a totally new Hearts.’ You never know. We’ve won our last two games and done really well in those matches but you just never know. If we keep winning games, we just need to push and see how far we can get whether that’s in the cup or the league.”