The rise of Calem Nieuwenhof at Hearts: reserved character, fitness levels, why Steven Naismith likes him so much
Hearts fans are now seeing the real Calem Nieuwenhof, with the 22-year-old having started eight of the Jambos’ past 11 matches in a season-defining undefeated run.
Understandably it has taken a little bit of time for the former Western Sydney Wanderers player to adapt to the Scottish game after arriving in Gorgie last summer. The player himself admits he is quite a reserved character and has been forced to come out of his shell by the pace and ferocity of the Scottish game. Hearts, however, are reaping the rewards.
Nieuwenhof has become an integral part of Steven Naismith’s team. He has played every minute of the Jambos’ past five matches and is contributing more and more – and not just with his two goals. He is energetic, passes the ball diligently and has good positional awareness. Compare him to the first few weeks of the season and there is a clear improvement in his game.
“I'm a bit more of a laidback, reserved kind of guy,” Nieuwenhof admitted after Hearts’ latest win, a 4-1 Scottish Cup triumph over Airdrieonians. “Coming over here, to Scotland, football is so different. You can't really be reserved on the pitch as I've learned. You need to go into every game with that mindset that you are going to have to get stuck in and get involved. That's something I have really learned across the last few months and brought it into my game and just trying to get consistency into that side of my game, the physical aspect.
“I'm definitely going into the team with that consistency. I've been playing week in, week out for the last few rounds. I'm feeling a lot more comfortable in the team and getting used to the way we play and the way we want to break down teams. I've been happy to play a role in Sunday's game and the last few games. I've been happy with how it has been going.”
Nieuwenhof has grown under Naismith, who has stuck by the midfielder during his transition from Australian to Scottish football. “I honestly couldn't be any happier with the support Naisy has given me during the whole time I have been here,” Nieuwenhof admitted. “From the start, he said it was a massive move for me coming from the other side of the world, a completely different style of football and lifestyle as well. He's always said to me it is going to take time to settle in and get used to the league, the way teams play over here. I couldn't be more grateful for the trust he has put in me. I'm just really happy to get some consistency, play consistently and hopefully reward his faith.”
Naismith explained why Nieuwenhof has become such a vital cog in his Hearts machine. “The character he is, he’s a reserved person and is really chilled out. That probably went against him in his first few months when he was finding his feet, but in training you can see his quality – his calmness in possession, his understanding of the game, his range of passing, and he is a goal threat as well. He’s one of the fittest players at the club. What he brings on and off the ball is really important. He’s consistently improving and becoming more dominant in games, which is why we signed him. We knew he was good player, he’s a really good player. He’s got a desire to get into the international team and I don’t think that’ll be too far away if he continues in the same vein of form.”