Two games into the new season and Hearts’ signing of Sam Nicholson on a three-year contract already looks a shrewd piece of business.
The winger scored a sumptuous goal in yesterday’s derby after creating Osman Sow’s winner at Ibrox last week. Garnering six points from Rangers and Hibs is an ideal start to life in the Championship – results both inspired by Nicholson.
Hibs arrived at Tynecastle confident under new head coach Alan Stubbs, who has transformed their style of play and levels of belief. Few could have complained had they returned to Easter Road with a point after a well-organised and disciplined display. Nicholson’s magical opening goal 14 minutes from the end changed the complexion of a game which, until that moment, had been largely unremarkable.
Liam Craig, the Hibs captain, missed a first-half penalty, much to the relief of the 20-year-old debutant in the Hearts goal, Jack Hamilton. That apart, this game looked destined for a 0-0 draw. Nicholson changed that by nutmegging Scott Robertson and lashing an unstoppable drive past the Hibs goalkeeper Mark Oxley via the inside of the post. It was another crucial and timely intervention from the teenager. He signed a new deal until 2017 before the start of the season and is already providing value for money.
Prince Buaben converted a penalty two minutes later before the impressive Farid El Alagui conjured up an exquisite finish of his own in the dying minutes. It was not enough to prise Hibs a point, although there is no question they are now a different team to that which often capitulated so meekly in derbies under previous managers Pat Fenlon and Terry Butcher.
Tensions spilled over during that busy finish and both Sow and Robertson found themselves ordered off. The Hearts striker could have no complaints about a straight red card for elbowing Michael Nelson. Robertson received a second booking for fouling Buaben in the challenge which brought Hearts’ penalty. It was a sour ending but nothing could cloud Nicholson’s performance and goal.
“I can’t even remember half of it. I just remember running away celebrating. I can’t get my head round it,” he said. “I used to go to Hearts games when I was younger. I’d see Hearts score against Hibs and think, ‘I wish that was me’. Eventually getting to do it was unbelievable. I’m just really delighted we got the three points.
“Both teams did try to pass the ball and I think it was a good game all round. Different people will have different opinions on who they think should’ve won. We got the three points and we’re all delighted.
“The target was obviously to get six points from the first two games. Now that we’ve got them, it’s not to say we’ve won the league. There are still loads of games left and we need to try to win the rest of them. It is a great start, though.”
Hamilton was handed a debut by Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson ahead of newly-signed goalkeeper Lee Hollis. He performed well in light of his inexperience. Jason Holt also came in for the injured Dale Carrick. Hibs reinstated Michael Nelson in place of the injured Paul Hanlon, whilst Paul Heffernan was dropped in favour of Danny Handling.
The early exchanges were predictably frantic as both teams sought to seize an initiative. For Hibs, Nelson’s backward header from Craig’s free-kick bounced narrowly wide of Hamilton’s goal on 19 minutes. Craig then executed a fine tackle on Billy King inside his own penalty area to deny the Hearts winger a shooting chance.
Scrappy fouls continued until the first major incident on 31 minutes. Handling scampered into the Hearts penalty area in pursuit of El Alagui’s head flick. Hamilton piled into a strong challenge for the bouncing ball and was judged to have fouled the Hibs player. Referee Willie Collum pointed to the spot and cautioned the Hearts goalkeeper, but Craig put the penalty wide of Hamilton’s left post.
It was a moment of wastefulness which the visitors would rue. Jordan McGhee’s powerful volley flew inches past the post in the dying seconds of the first half, and the second began at the same hectic pace. Although bouts of passing football did break out on several times throughout the afternoon, they were too often halted by late challenges, barges, trips etc.
It required a moment of sorcery to break the deadlock and Nicholson supplied it in the 76th minute. He collected possession inside the Hibs half and cleverly nutmegged Robertson. He then sprinted forward at full pace before unleashing a spectacular 25-yard drive past Oxley and in off the post.
The match was put beyond Hibs two minutes later when Collum awarded a second penalty. This time he penalised Robertson for a challenge on Buaben as the Hearts midfielder drove forward inside the penalty area. Robertson was booked and subsequently red carded for the offence, reducing the visitors to ten men. Their misery was compounded when Buaben confidently stroked the penalty high into the net.
Sow’s dismissal was a rash second of madness Neilson could have done without. The giant Swede elbowed Nelson challenging for a high ball and left Collum little option but to issue a straight red card.
Moments later, Hibs reduced the deficit by half and briefly threatened a fightback.
El Alagui expertly flicked a bouncing ball over the Hearts captain Danny Wilson near the edge of the home penalty box. As it dropped, the striker lashed it into the corner of the net to leave Hamilton helpless. It was El Alagui’s second goal in two games, but not enough to earn the visitors a point.
Unsavoury scenes in stoppage time saw the game end on an unwanted note.
Craig was incensed at Walker, who appeared to motion to headbutt Lewis Stevenson near the corner flag. The Hearts winger was unhappy at a dangerous tackle by Stevenson and referee Collum had a task to stop events spiralling out of control. As the full-time whistle sounded, the irate Craig headed off down the tunnel, but Hearts held Walker back to avoid any confrontation outside the dressing-rooms.
Afterwards, Neilson spoke about Nicholson’s impact. “We knew the game would open up after 70 minutes and we’d get into those areas where we have the quality. We got it with Sam,” he said. “We waited 90 minutes for him to do it at Ibrox and we waited 70-odd minutes today. He gets into that area and he hits an unstoppable shot. That gives us the impetus to go on and win the game.”