Hearts striker Conor Sammon returns tomorrow to face the club with which he enjoyed the most prolific scoring run of his career.
A remarkable 18 goals in 27 matches for Mixu Paatelainen’s swashbuckling Kilmarnock side in the first half of the 2010/11 season was enough to earn the Irishman a £600,000 move to Wigan Athletic in January 2011. Sammon remained in England for five-and-a-half years before returning to Scotland to sign for Hearts in the summer.
Thus far, he has failed to set the heather alight in front of goal, with just two to his name in 14 appearances. Some supporters haven’t taken to the 29-year-old as yet – as evidenced by the jeering when the more popular Tony Watt was replaced before him in the recent victory over Dundee – while others appreciate the hard-running, selfless job he is doing for the team as the focal point of Robbie Neilson’s attack.
“Everyone in football divides opinion. I divide opinion – that’s football,” said the head coach ahead of tomorrow’s trip to Rugby Park, where Sammon scored 25 goals in total over two and a half years. “If there were no opinions, that would mean nobody was turning up on a Saturday.
“From my perspective, Conor’s been great for us. The way we play, he’s the figurehead who can stretch the game. He leads the line well for us and does a lot of unselfish running that creates space for other guys. He’s there to create chances for other people and to convert chances when they come along. Football is not just all about who scores the goals – it’s about what players bring to the team, in terms of creating for others and what kind of workrate and spirit they bring. He’s a team player.
“Some people would rather a striker just stood in the six-yard box waiting for chances to come to him, others want them to drop away and defend, others want them to run channels, others want them to take ten people on. Everyone wants different things in a football match, but Conor’s doing what we want from him. He’s got two goals and we want him to score more, but I know he will.”
Former Hearts boss Jim Jefferies was the man who first brought Sammon to Scotland when he recruited him for Kilmarnock in 2008 on the back of a recommendation from Jambos legend John Robertson, who had signed the raw hitman during his time as Derry City manager. Jefferies – who admits to having endured moments of exasperation himself with Sammon when he managed him – understands why the 29-year-old “won’t be everyone’s cup of tea”, but he insists his value to the team shouldn’t be underestimated.
“The jury seems to be out on Conor at Hearts but that won’t worry him,” said Jefferies. “Even on days when things aren’t coming off for him, he’ll never hide. I know where some Hearts fans will be coming from because he used to have days where nothing came off for him.
“But on the whole, we knew Conor was a handful for our opponents. He took time to settle at Kilmarnock and people can be quick to judge. But I remember one of his first starts for us at home to Aberdeen [in the League Cup] and Conor was on fire in the first half. We led 3-0 at one point and he scored two but at half-time he felt his groin and had to come off. I think Aberdeen were relieved because he was tearing them apart.”
A few rough edges to his play, allied to niggling injuries and competition for an attacking place from the likes of David Fernandez and Kevin Kyle, meant Sammon took time to establish himself at Kilmarnock. Jefferies admits that it wasn’t until Paatelainen came in six months after he had left to return to Hearts that Sammon truly started to fulfil his potential.
“His link-up play needed a bit of work but he was a willing runner who had good movement and would go into good spaces,” said Jefferies. “He should probably have been better in the air than he is – I felt the timing of his jumps could have been better. He seemed to score instinctive goals and wasn’t so good when he had too much time to think about it.
“One of his biggest assets was putting players under pressure. Mixu came in and played a system that probably suited him better, with [Alexei] Eremenko just behind him, putting balls through for him. Conor was ideal for that lone-strike role because he’s quick and he works his socks off. I’ve not seen enough of him recently to see how much he’s come on, but he seemed better suited to playing on his own up front with good players playing off him.”
Tim Clancy shared a dressing-room with Sammon throughout his time at Kilmarnock and witnessed his fellow Irishman develop into one of the most lethal strikers in Scotland. “The early days at Kilmarnock were a bit difficult for him because he was in and out the team but in the six months under Mixu it just clicked for him – he was unplayable that year,” recalls the defender, who went on to have a spell with Hibs and is now with Bray Wanderers. “He worked really well with Mehdi Taouil and Eremenko behind him and was a massive part of Mixu’s success at Killie. He’s got a lot of pace and a big physical presence, and he used to stretch the game and occupy the centre-backs for us, leaving space for the players in behind. His workrate is phenomenal on the pitch and off it. He’s an example to all young kids. He was always in the gym at Killie, and on top of that he was going to a personal trainer. He was in unbelievable physical condition – fit as a fiddle and strong as an ox.”
Despite his rampant scoring form six years ago, Clancy insists Sammon shouldn’t be judged solely on his goals. “A lot of football fans just see a striker and look for goals – ‘how many goals has he got?’ But then you get other players like Kris Boyd, who always score but still get stick off the fans for supposedly not doing the other side of the game. Conor won’t always be a prolific scorer but he works tirelessly and brings a lot more to the table other than just scoring goals. When you’re under the cosh, to have someone like Conor up front for you is massive. You never please everyone in football, but the most important people to please are your manager and your team-mates, and Conor seems to be doing that at Hearts.”
Sammon has failed to truly flourish at any club since leaving Kilmarnock, but has still amassed more than 100 appearances in the top two divisions in England, something few attacking exports from Scotland’s top flight have been able to accomplish in recent times. In addition, he has collected 12 caps for the Republic of Ireland. “He’s made an unbelievable career out of the game and he deserves every bit of it because his attitude is phenomenal,” said Clancy.
Jefferies added: “Although he never settled anywhere long term, the fact big clubs in England always wanted to take him on loan speaks volumes about him. He’s done really well for himself and now he’s playing regularly for a big club in Hearts. I’m delighted for him because I loved working with him. He’s a great boy with a great attitude.”
Asked if Sammon can replicate his scoring exploits from that 2010/11 season at Kilmarnock, Neilson replied emphatically: “100 per cent. He’ll be looking forward to going back to Rugby Park, so hopefully he can go and get some goals.”