RELEGATION often causes an outbreak of itchy feet at a football club as players feel the urge to move on and disassociate themselves with failure. When it comes to Hearts, however, the brightest talents at Tynecastle are intent on staying exactly where they are and helping their club make a rapid return to the Premiership.
The slogan being used by the club to promote its season-ticket offer is “join the revival”, and the atmosphere around the ground, more than a month before the first round of fixtures in the Championship, is already one of recovery. Morgaro Gomis, James Keatings and Soufian El Hassnaoui have joined, more players are expected soon – and, most significantly according to director of football Craig Levein, Sam Nicholson has signed a new three-year contract.
Arguably the brightest talent to break through at Tynecastle in recent years, the 19-year-old winger explained yesterday that he did not have to think long before committing his future to the club. “It wasn’t a tough decision at all,” Nicholson said. “It was an easy decision and it’s definitely the right one.
“In terms of developing as a young player, I think this is the place to be. A lot of younger players got a game last season and I think more will come through.
“The signings we’ve made so far have been brilliant – exactly the kind you’d want. They all want to work hard and you’ve all got the same aim – to get promoted. It’s good everyone is pulling in the right direction.
“It means more people are going to be fighting for places and that’s the best thing that could happen to us. The worst thing that can happen is that someone thinks their place is guaranteed and they don’t have to work as hard. It’s important you have someone keeping you on your toes.”
While welcoming the competition, Nicholson is confident that he has a lot to offer the new regime. In turn, he is sure that Levein and head coach Robbie Neilson have a lot to offer him as he prepares to consolidate his position in Hearts’ senior squad.
“It was important for me to be somewhere that I feel I’ll get regular first-team football,” he continued. “The main thing for me was that I was playing first-team football last year, so it was crucial to me that I stayed at that level and didn’t go backwards. I want to get more experience.
“I just want to get as much game time as I can. The players who are coming in are coming in to help us. I think the coaching staff and strength-and-conditioning staff will really improve us.
“Robbie was great with me in the under-20s. He’s the sort of coach you want around. It’s not as if he gives you one session in the morning and then that’s it – we’ll do double sessions and work in the gym.
“He works on everything. Development-wise he’s going to be the best coach to have. He’ll come in and ask what our weaknesses are, then tell us to go and work on them. I need to work on my crossing and I’m not the strongest.
“I’m stronger than I was. We had to toughen up physically and, to be fair, [former manager] Gary Locke and the strength-and-conditioning coaches put us through a bigger programme, which helped. The league next season will probably be more physical so we’ll need to get even stronger. I was in the gym on Monday and I can hardly move now.
“The positivity here was a big part of my thinking. We’ve been through a hard season and things can only get better. If we all approach it the right way we can achieve promotion, whether it’s this season or the next one.
“Coming straight back up has to be the target. We can’t just go through the season as if we’re playing with a hangover from last season. It’s not just Hibs and Rangers either. The likes of Livingston and Falkirk will make it really difficult for us. The whole league will be hard. Everyone will be coming here to beat us.”
To be labelled the most significant signing of the season by your club’s head of football can be a burden as much as it is a compliment, but Nicholson appears intent on taking it in his stride. “It’s a great compliment coming from someone like Craig Levein, but I don’t feel pressurised by it,” he added. “I’ll just try and play the same way that I did at the end of last season.
“It’s just the way I approach things. I can’t approach it thinking ‘Craig Levein is right’. I have to go out and show it. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”