IT’S one of those things; say it often enough and it almost becomes fact. But while everyone is entitled to an opinion, just don’t expect Hearts’ Sam Nicholson to take the idea seriously.
Once labelled a pub team for what was deemed an unromantic and robust approach to the game, in recent weeks, those accusations have been rearing their head again.
But the slight winger looked incredulous when quizzed about the situation as the team prepared for this afternoon’s Scottish Cup tie against Aberdeen. “I wish I was a wee bit more physical,” he said, laughing. “It’s not like I’m going to take anyone out of the game so I would disagree with that!”
In Hearts’ last head to head with Derek McInnes’ men, in the league, at Pittodrie, the capital side took some criticism for the way they tackled the game. The aim was clearly to stifle and break up the rhythm of the play and it almost reaped dividends but, having lost thanks to a late goal, there was ultimately little vindication for the tactics.
It lead to Dons’ winger Jonny Hayes stating that Hearts were as physical a side as they have played. “We were aware it could be a physical game against them,” he said afterwards, “and we had to try to match that and let a game of football break out. I’ve always been told if you’re kicked up and down the park it’s a compliment.But it’s frustrating at times as you would prefer to beat the man and put a cross in, rather than having to take a static free-kick against a big side.”
Nicholson knows how he feels, though, and while he has almost accepted that is part and parcel of life as a creative player, he does not believe that his team-mates mete out anything more bruising that he encounters from opposition battlers week in week out. He concedes that the smaller ball players on Hearts’ books have worked on their strength and conditioning to ensure they are not easily bullied off the ball but he is tickled by the characterisation of them as a team of henchmen.
“Even in the Championship, I was getting bullied off the ball and I think that’s something I need to work on. Getting to a state of physicality where you cannot get bullied, I think that’s important. I think the majority of our team have that but because I’m not the biggest guy in the world, I need to try to get to a certain state with my body where I’m not going to get easily pushed off the ball. It’s important to me and it’s important to the club.
“Sometimes games can be won through winning battles in the middle of the park so it can be good having that bit of physical presence but I wouldn’t say we’re a physical team. Every team’s got physical players but I can’t really see us being a physical team. If I was a bit bigger, maybe I would say I was. That’s just their opinion. Football’s a weird game. I’m still just gobsmacked with the statement. I must look at it from a different point of view than them.”
There is a feeling that sour grapes contribute to the slur, with his manager Robbie Neilson saying they rarely hear those things from rivals when Hearts lose and while Hearts’ playing style for most of that match in Aberdeen was far removed from the wonderful link up up play and delightful wing play which has entertained for large periods of Neilson’s managerial tenure, he says they came close to keeping one of the nation’s top teams at bay and nicking something from the match.
“It was a tough game to go and play but I thought we played really well. I thought we created two or three really good chances and we could have won the game.
“People look at it and say we’ve got a back four that’s 6ft 2 and 6ft 3 and just think that’s physical. The boys can play football. We’ve got Alim Ozturk who’s 6ft 3 but is probably one of the best passers of a ball in Scotland. Osman Sow isn’t a physical player but because he’s 6ft 4 everyone thinks he is. When you look at Aberdeen, Hearts, St Johnstone, to an extent Celtic, they’re all physical teams. You need to be physical. You need that in any division. That’s just the way it is. But we’re not an overly physical team, we’ve just got strong players who want to win games.”
Ahead of their match with St Johnstone much was made of Hearts’ foul count. “But if you look at it, in most games it’s pretty even,” said the Hearts gaffer. “If people want to highlight it they can highlight it. It’s up to them. It’s always been something that’s been put on Hearts down the years – they’re a big physical team. But look at Celtic and the size of their team – Bitton, Ambrose, Craig Gordon. If you want to win leagues you have to be physically strong, quick and you have to be ready to go and compete.
“If you compete against Celtic at a set-play and they bring up five or six players at 6’4’’ then you need to be able to compete against that. It will be the same against Aberdeen, it will be a physical game. I expect Aberdeen to play Taylor, who is 6’4’’, Considine, who is 6’3’’, Reynolds, who is 6’2’’, possibly Quinn, Rooney, who is 6’3’’, McLean, who is 6’0’’. Everyone’s physical nowadays. I don’t think we’re an overly-physical team. We’ve got good height in our team and we’ve got good pace.”