HAVING grown up as a Hearts supporter, Sam Nicholson has always been very conscious of the relationship between the club and its fans.
It may have been a fractious marriage at times during the Romanov era, but in the year just ended the bond between the supporters and their team seemed to get closer by the week. Evidence of that was provided at the final match of 2014, when seven and a half thousand Hearts fans made the short trip to Livingston last week to see their team preserve their unbeaten record with a 1-0 win.
“It was unbelievable. It felt like a home game having the three stands packed out,” said Nicholson. “Everyone has seen that the Hearts fans have been tremendous this season and last. The players appreciate it. You see all the travelling support.
“I don’t think taking 7,500 to Livingston has happened before at Hearts. Hopefully the fans do feel closer with us because we feel closer with them.”
Nicholson realised a boyhood dream in the previous Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle, scoring the opening goal as the home side went on to win 2-1. It is a memory he hopes to take into tomorrow’s game against Hibernian, but, while reliving it with another goal would be ideal, he will simply be content if, like last time, his team end up with the victory.
“I was happy I scored, but I was more happy that we won the derby,” he said. “It’s definitely the biggest moment of my career. Being a Hearts fan, it meant a lot to me.
“Winning derbies as a fan, I know what it means to them. Being in the crowd, it’s massive and it’s brilliant to be involved in it. I know what it’s like and there are a lot of Hearts fans in the dressing room who know what it’s like as well.
“Hopefully we can take that into Saturday. You saw how stupid my celebration was last time so you do act like a fan.
“All the players know what it means to the club and the fans. It means a lot to the players as well. We all want to win it.”
Still a teenager for another few weeks, Nicholson has an natural exuberance to his game. But, as Hearts’ unbeaten league record has grown and grown, he has also learned the importance of not getting carried away with success – a lesson for which he thanks head coach Robbie Neilson.
“We are delighted with it, but we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves and think that’s us done something in football. It’s only half a season. There’s still another half season to go.
“The manager is telling us to take it game by game and he’s right. We can’t look at winning the next four games because that doesn’t matter. It’s game by game. There are loads of hard games coming up. Hibs is a massive game. We’ve got Rangers in two weeks – even Dumbarton the week after, they’re all hard.
“We can’t think that, because a team isn’t in the top five places in the league, we’re going to win. Teams like Raith and Livingston are still good teams and will still go out to beat us.
“Every team is going to want to beat Hearts and Hibs. Every team wants to beat every team in this league anyway, whether they’re top of the league or bottom. It’s like that every week.
“Obviously we’re proud of what we’ve done in the first half of the season, but who knows if we can carry it on or not? If it carries on, great. If it doesn’t, then we just go again.”
The closest Hearts have come to losing that unbeaten record was at Easter Road at the end of October, when Hibs were ahead going into stoppage time only for Alim Ozturk to unleash an unstoppable shot from 40 yards. Nicholson believes that the experience of that 1-1 draw will ensure that his team do not underestimate their opponents tomorrow.
“It was a hard game,” he added. “They came out at us and we were just delighted to go away with something at the end of the day. We saw an improved Hibs team in that game.
“We know what we can do, but we know what they can do as well. This is a massive game for both clubs.”
As well as that bond between supporters and team, Nicholson has benefited from the tight-knit nature of the squad while he was out of action until recently with a thigh problem. “I’m delighted to get back,” he said. “There’s nothing worse than being injured. Standing in the physio room, it feels like you’re going insane. Guys like Dale Carrick have been in there longer than me, so I’m grateful I’m back a wee bit earlier.
“Dale’s always been insane to be fair. He’s dealing with it better than I was. Hopefully he’ll be back soon.
“It was the whole team,” he continued when asked who had helped keep his head up. “All the players are like that when they’re injured – they’re down a bit and they just want to be playing. Everyone was coming up to me telling me not to worry about it and that you can’t do anything about it.
“We’ve got a good group of lads there who are all supportive of each other. That’s why the team is so close.”