SAM Nicholson is a player who has caught the eye of Everton in the past but when he faces up to the English Premier League team tomorrow, the only person he wants to impress is his Hearts manager Robbie Neilson.
Excited about the start of the new campaign, in which the Gorgie side will be back among the country’s best, Nicholson knows that the friendly encounter with the team which finished mid-table in the English top flight last term offers everyone in the Hearts squad the chance to stake a claim for a starting place when the real action gets underway.
I remember my first derby against Hibs and it’s the most nervous I’ve ever been in footballSam Nicholson
And although he says he didn’t have his head turned by reports that the Goodison Park scouts were monitoring his performances last season, he was flattered.
A year ago Joe Royle was in Edinburgh to take in the first capital derby of last season and was impressed by the Hearts youngster, who played a starring role and weighed in with the opening goal to put his side on the way to victory.
“I never really pay too much attention to things like that. I just think about my own game,” said Nicholson. “It is flattering, but if nothing comes of it, it doesn’t make a difference. A couple of my friends mentioned it. None of the guys in the dressing room said anything about it. I just want to focus on things at Hearts. But it’s definitely a massive compliment if someone like Joe Royle flagged me up.”
Given the calibre of the opposition tomorrow, the 20-year-old would be thrilled if he could turn in another eye-catching performance but he knows the bigger priority is getting off to a good start when the competitive action begins next weekend. “It’s definitely a glamour game. Everton are a great team, a top side in the English Premier League. It’ll be a great test for us and we’re all looking forward to it. I suppose it’s a chance to show what I can do. No matter who you are playing you need to go out to try and impress. I have to treat it like another game. It’s going to be a great test for all of us. Blazej, for one, has been with Bolton and played at a really good level down south. This will still be a good experience for guys like him.”
The game should give the players, manager and fans a good indication of how far they have come in the rebuilding and strengthening process, as they prepare to return to the Premiership.
“We’ve played in the league before. It’ll be a massive step up. No disrespect to the Championship, but there are better teams in the league between teams like Celtic and Aberdeen. Hopefully we can do well. Last season I still watched Premiership games if they were on TV.”
So he knows what Hearts will be up against as they try to make good on their target of a top-six finish. Those kind of bold predictions will gave their rivals something to rail against but Nicholson said he always expected every game to be a challenge anyway.
“The teams we will be playing will be better. That’s a fact. But we’re looking forward to it and we just want the season to start now. Maybe other teams will try harder against us.
“I remember when I first started, on my debut against Inverness, being a bit nervous, but when you get your first touch you block everything out and just get on with the game. The way the club was going at the time, it was good for the young boys in terms of helping us break through. The expectation comes from everyone watching the game, even the coaching staff, who will expect much more from us. And I think that’s right. We should expect more from ourselves.”
Those nerves remain a factor but he says he has long-since sussed out how to channel them. “We were pinned back by a lot of teams that season, which meant that when you had the ball you had to do the right things with it,” added Nicholson. “It was definitely harder and there was a sense of being nervous for a lot of the games. I remember playing Hibs in my first derby and it’s the most nervous I’ve ever been in football. What happened that season was good for me but, obviously, not the best for the club.
“With every game, I’ve got a bit more confident. There will still be massive games coming up where I get a bit nervous but, to be honest, I don’t think nerves are a bad thing.
“If you don’t get nervous, there’s something wrong with you. My dad’s told me that. He’s passed on a wee bit of wisdom and said don’t let nerves get to you.
“I think he’s right. If a player is nervous you can tell if it gets to him or not. It’s usually the players the nerves don’t get to who do well.”