DARREN MURRAY has coached Riccarton’s star pupils, including Christophe Berra, Lee Wallace and Andy Driver.
It is his place to rank the new generation as he sees fit. His view that Sam Nicholson could become the best young footballer he has ever worked with certainly carries weight. Nicholson is only 18 but is already one of Hearts’ biggest prospects.
The winger scored his first senior goal in last weekend’s pulsating 3-3 draw at McDiarmid Park – a game in which Dale Carrick also claimed his maiden first-team goal.
Murray monitors the progress of Hearts’ youngsters from his new base in the Midlands, where he is now Coventry City’s Under-18 coach. He resigned as Hearts’ player development manager three months ago but is excited at the promise shown by many he left behind.
At the top of his tree is Nicholson, a local lad from a humble background with a determination to realise his full potential. Murray first recognised his ability when he saw the player in action for Hearts’ Under-15 side. Having helped nurture him through under-17s, under-19s, under-20s and into the first team, he is eager to see him maximise his embryonic talent.
“Sam has the potential to be the best one I’ve ever worked with,” Murray told the Evening News. “He has the attributes of a fantastic player and can go on to big things. Hopefully he can go on and prove himself this year because I see him as a real prospect.
“Given the right development, I think the boy can go all the way.
“He has so much talent but he’s very grounded as well. His dad will keep his feet on the ground and Sam’s not the type of person to think he’s made it. He is very humble and comes from a really good family. Give him that opportunity to go and play and he could be anything he wants to be. That’s a big accolade to give him. If he can reach the heights that the likes of Christophe and Lee have done by becoming full internationals I’ll be delighted for him.
Murray recalls the day he first took notice of a young, skinny Nicholson in one of Riccarton’s younger academy teams. A lack of self-belief was evident, but skill and a penchant for taking on and beating people stood out significantly. “He was still playing for the under-15s when I first noticed him. You could see he was very gifted technically but he was very slight at the time. You knew he had a good football brain,” explained Murray.
“Sam’s movement to get on the ball and how he drifts inside to take players on was very evident from a young age. He really just had to build his physique and mental strength up. When he joined us full-time he just went from strength to strength with the full-time training. He’s such an easy lad to work with because he’s so committed in what he does every day.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Nicholson struggles to be convinced about just how highly he is rated. “If there’s one thing that might go against him it’s that he’s very critical of himself. Sam actually doesn’t believe in himself a great deal,” admitted Murray. “I think Sam has to take belief from training and playing with the first team. That can stand him in good stead for the future. He can take players out and eliminate players so quickly with his touch. Although he’s not lightning quick, he has a football brain so that first half a yard is in his head. To have that is a massive thing for a young player.
“You can play Sam anywhere across the midfield or forward area. He is that good a player he can just adjust to any position. He hasn’t come through playing in a specific position. We didn’t say to young players ‘you’re a right-back’ or ‘you’re a centre midfielder’.
“Sam is one of the newer breed of players who can play in a number of positions. That was something I tried to do at Hearts – make sure younger players weren’t pigeon-holed into specific positions.
“You always have players in mind as a coach that you hope do really well. The ones who are so committed. I told the players at Hearts that every day matters and every day counts, and now I’m telling the boys at Coventry City the same thing. When you go home each night, make sure you can look in that mirror and know you’ve given it your best shot. That is success for me. Sam is that type of player who gives it everything every day.”
Nicholson is leading the next generation of Riccarton graduates pressing for a place in Gary Locke’s senior squad. Adam King and Gary Oliver are by his side, eager to impose themselves. “Adam King, Gary Oliver and Sam Nicholson have all come through together and they have such an understanding with each other that it’s telepathic at times. It’s certainly been worked on for a number of years,” explained Murray.
“From my point of view, Sam’s performance against Hibs for the under-20s earlier this season was probably the best I’ve seen from him. He scored an absolute wonder goal and was just outstanding overall. His decision-making that night was fantastic and his link-up play with Gary Oliver was superb.
“Hearts are going through a rough time just now and no-one likes to see that. However, there will be times when these young guys are playing and you’ll see these short combinations and their understanding of each other’s game. That’s what they bring.”