SAM NICHOLSON freely admits he isn’t ready for the brutal physicality of English football. He will develop his slender frame and improve his consistency at Hearts before even thinking about moving.
Friendlies against Preston last Saturday and Everton this Sunday allow Tynecastle players to judge themselves against English opponents. Nicholson already knows his foreseeable future lies in Edinburgh.
Part of Hearts’ rebuild under Ann Budge is to sell themselves as a club which offers players a platform to progress to the Barclays Premier League or Sky Bet Championship. Youngsters like Nicholson, Jamie Walker, Callum Paterson and Billy King graduated from the Riccarton youth academy and, in time, could be sold on for a profit. That is the model Budge and director of football Craig Levein put in place, although no-one will be rushed out of the door.
Nicholson is more than content to wait. The 20-year-old winger wants his performance levels to be more consistent this season as Hearts return to the top level of Scottish football. Saturday’s encounter with Preston at Deepdale confirmed to him that his physique isn’t yet ready for the demands of England. His body is still growing and he feels it would need to be stronger before he considers any move. It is a mature outlook from a player who has much to offer in Scotland’s Premiership.
“It’s a huge test for us to play against Preston and Everton and you gain experience playing them. They’ve got some brilliant players,” said Nicholson, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “These games give you an idea of how you’ll cope. I’ve noticed that, down south, they’re a lot more physical and they’re bigger. It shows that, in terms of physique, I wouldn’t say I’m ready just now. It’s good for me and a lot of the other Hearts players to see that.
“I don’t know what the club thinks of us, whether they want to sell us on or what, but I think it’s a good incentive for us. It lets us know how we need to develop, whether it’s to move on to a bigger club or even with Hearts.
“Hearts still want us to develop into good players. That might mean getting bigger here. The coaching we get is perfect and everyone is enjoying it. John Hill [sports scientist] has got us in the gym and doing extra running during pre-season, and it’s working. That’s something I’m looking to develop and I’ve worked hard on it. It’s obviously a long road. I’m still at an age where I’m not full developed physically anyway, so I’m not in a rush.”
Chief amongst Nicholson’s ambitions right now is consistency of performance. He started in rampant form a year ago as Hearts began their assault on the Championship title, but the player wasn’t happy with how he faded at times during the season. The year ahead is the biggest he has faced since turning professional.
“This season is massive for me. I’ve played over 60 games now,” he explained. “Last time we were in the Premiership, I wasn’t experienced enough. Now I’ve got a wee bit of experience to take into the campaign. I did okay last season but I need to improve each year. I’m just looking to have a better season in terms of performance and not have any dips in form. Last year I had too many dips. I would have a couple of good games and then a few bad games. As a player, you need to get rid of that and it’s something I need to do. It maybe comes with age or it comes mentally.
“At this age, depending how many games I get, I can still get tired easily. I’m not used to playing a lot of first-team games, but that’s no excuse. I just need to get used to doing it week in and week out. I felt I did alright last season, I just tapered off towards the end. The way I started the season is what I need to carry on through the whole campaign.”
After two years in the senior squad, does he now allow himself to think he is an established face? “I would like to think I’m part of the squad but all it takes is a couple of bad games and you can be out,” he said. “If you have a couple of bad performances, you’re going to be taken out. There are brilliant young players at Hearts so there will always be younger ones breathing down my neck. I’ve just got to keep my standards up. You’re only a couple of games away from losing your place in the first team.
“I’m looking for that consistency this year. Last season I started really well and then had a dip in form. I want to be more consistent. This will be a really hard season. We don’t have the right to win as many games as last year. We’re up against bigger clubs and there are players worth millions of pounds in this league. We need to take a step up.”
Perhaps for that reason, pre-season preparations have been demanding on the Hearts players. Nicholson admits to feeling slightly fatigued at times. Sunday’s game against Everton is the final friendly before competitive matches start with a League Cup tie at home to Arbroath next Thursday.
“Pre-season has been tiring,” he conceded. “There have been more games than last year, which was more about training. This year is more games so it you’re needing a lot more recovery sessions to let the muscles relax. We’re all enjoying it, though. Everyone is blowing the cobwebs away and starting to get match fitness and sharpness now. It couldn’t come at a better time. We’ve got Everton this week, then Arbroath and St Johnstone. I think we’re going the right way.”