After a dream-fulfilling decade with Hearts, Sam Nicholson has taken on a new challenge in America which he hopes will allow him to broaden his horizons and rediscover his spark.
The 22-year-old has spent the past 12 days stateside after agreeing a two-and-a-half-year deal with Major League Soccer side Minnesota United. As a Hearts supporter who had been a prominent member of the team until a serious knee injury last autumn stopped him in his tracks, Nicholson’s decision to reject the offer of a new contract at Tynecastle came as a surprise to many.
Speaking for the first time about why he chose to leave his boyhood club, he cited the need for a fresh start as he seeks to get back to the level of form that had him billed as one of Scotland’s most explosive young attackers not so long ago.
“I felt like I needed to experience something new,” said Nicholson in an exclusive interview with the Evening News. “I’m an ambitious person and, whether I’m a Hearts fan or not, I don’t want to stay in the same place forever. As much as I love Hearts, I was there ten years, going in and working at the same place every day, and I wanted to experience something new, work with new people, live in a different environment. I needed a change to get my spark back.
“It’s not a case of me feeling I’m better than Hearts – I don’t believe that at all. I just felt at this stage, and the age I’m at, it was a good time for a change because last season, after I got injured, it didn’t go well for me in terms of form, fitness, getting beat every week and things like that. To be playing well, your head’s got to be in the right place, so I felt I needed a change to get my love for football back, in terms of enjoying it again and playing well.”
Although Nicholson’s future at Hearts had been in doubt for some time due to his reluctance to sign a new contract, it was the demoralising nature of his last season – in which he was afflicted by fitness, form and confidence issues upon his return from injury – that ultimately convinced him to continue his career elsewhere.
“The start of last season was probably the best spell I’ve had in terms of form and goals and assists,” he said. “I felt like I was filled with confidence. But then I did my knee at Motherwell and, with having four months out, I was never going to get my full fitness back, even by the end of the season. You need at least a month of hard, intense training to get that back and I didn’t get that because I was put straight back in as we had lost a few players in January. I was happy to be back on the pitch, but form-wise it wasn’t good for me and confidence-wise it was hard. I could tell after a couple of games back that I was miles off it. Stuff I could do with the ball, I just felt like I couldn’t do any more. My spark had gone.
“I was doing extra training and everyone at Hearts was brilliant with me – Ian Cathro, Austin MacPhee, the sports scientists – but it wasn’t enough in relation to how much of the season I had missed. Mentally, my form was killing me. Fans don’t understand how hard it can be when you’ve had four months out, and it’s hard when they get on your back in that situation. I still worked my socks off, but I just couldn’t do what I wanted to do.”
After it was publicly confirmed by Cathro that Nicholson wouldn’t be renewing his contract, the winger was loudly jeered when he came on for what would be his last-ever outing at Tynecastle, against Partick Thistle in April. “I understand people booing me,” said Nicholson. “They won’t have been aware of my full reasons for choosing not to stay, so I just let that go over my head. People always have opinions. Some like you, some don’t. It seems like I’ve had abuse from a minority of Hearts fans – and it is a minority – basically since I came into the team three or four years ago. Even though it was quite a lot booing me that day, I’ve learned to shrug it off now. It comes with football. People judge you all the time. You’re either built to handle it or you’re not, and I feel I’ve got quite good at blanking it out.
“People will judge me for leaving Hearts but if they were offered the opportunity I’ve got, I’m pretty sure a lot of them would take it. I know there are some Hearts fans who genuinely bleed maroon and probably would stay at the club for the rest of their career if they were in this position, but I’m at a stage in my life where I feel like I need to try different things. When you’re from Edinburgh and you play for an Edinburgh team, life away from football can be quite intense. Everyone thinks they know stuff about you and make judgments about you. I’m actually looking forward to being somewhere I’m not really known – and I’m less hated! Honestly, there’s been stages where I’ve felt like the most hated person in Edinburgh.”
Although he found life in the spotlight in his home city difficult at times, Nicholson is not simply fleeing the flak he occasionally encountered from both Hearts and Hibs supporters. He is excited by the prospect of getting himself back on track in the burgeoning MLS.
Explaining how the move across the Atlantic arose, he said: “My agent and the club had spoken and it turned out they had already been looking at me on Wyscout. Going to America wasn’t something I’d thought about it, but when it came up, I thought ‘oh, I’ll have a wee look at this’. They took me over for a look early last month and I felt they took really good care of me. They showed me about, and it got me really excited. When I came home, my dad said ‘I’ve not seen you like this for a while, it’s like you’ve got your love for football back’. I think it’s what I need to get me going in the right direction again and get back to playing well.
“I was initially hoping to go to England, but I was never ruling anything out. I was probably looking at League One or the bottom half of the Championship. I’m well aware I’m miles away from Premier League level – I’d probably rot in the Under-23s! There’ll always be people who say ‘Nicholson thinks he’s better than Hearts’ but that’s not the case – I just wanted a new challenge. If you want to keep improving, you’ve got to try new things.
“When the chance to go to America, play in a different country and take myself out of my comfort zone came up, it appealed as a chance to test myself. Minnesota put in a lot of effort with me – they showed that they really wanted me and it felt really good. The facilities are great and I watched the training session, and the coaching was brilliant. The way they sold the club to me, it was hard to say no.
“I’m excited but obviously a bit wary of leaving my family and friends behind. My girlfriend will be coming out to join me soon though. I’m 22 and I’ve gone out of my comfort zone so it’ll be tough, but I’m excited. My plan is just to try and get my spark back and enjoy my football again. If it works out, I’d be happy to stay long term.”
Nicholson, a former Scotland Under-21 internationalist, is unfazed by the prospect of becoming forgotten about in relation to future international recognition. “I probably will be out of the picture in terms of the national team but it’s not impossible,” he said. “People write off the MLS too much. I’ve watched a lot of games and the standard is good. It’s a growing sport in America and it’s only going to get bigger. I might be out the frame for Scotland, but I don’t think I’m ready for it just now anyway. I think I’ll improve over here and then I’ll hopefully have a better chance in the future.”
Nicholson, who scored 15 goals in 127 appearances for Hearts after making his debut under Gary Locke almost four years ago, acknowledges his progress has stalled of late, but the winger believes the vast experience he has gained as a youngster will allow him to flourish long term. “The average age for breaking through in the Premiership is apparently 22,” he said. “I’m 22 and I’ve played over 100 games. I’ve had people say ‘you’ve not fulfilled your potential’, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’m only 22, I hope I’ve still got a few years to go!’”
Nicholson, one of the most popular members of the Hearts dressing-room in recent years, has been inundated with well-wishing messages since leaving the only club he has ever known. “It’s obviously been a bit emotional because I’ve been there ten years,” said the winger, who asked for a sell-on clause to be inserted into his contract so Hearts will benefit if Minnesota cash in on him in future. “Hearts have been great with me and I’ve told them that I appreciate everything they’ve done for me. I’ve got to a stage where I block out any bad things, so it’s only good memories I’ll take from my time at Hearts. Winning the Championship [in 2015] was the best, in terms of enjoyment and my head being in a good place.
“Making my debut was also pretty special. Before I played for Hearts, I had a season-ticket for years, so running out at Tynecastle for the first time in front of my mum, dad and my brothers, who had gone to games with me before, was an amazing feeling. It was the highlight of my life so far to play for Hearts.”