GARY Oliver hopes his scoring form for Scotland’s under-19s can win him a place in the Hearts team. The striker got the national team’s first goal in their 4-2 win over Switzerland at Livingston on Wednesday night, and believes he is ready for a run in Gary Locke’s side – ideally starting today at Kilmarnock.
“It was a good game and it was good to score,” Oliver said of the midweek match, in which his 12th-minute goal cancelled out an early Swiss opener.
“It’s an honour to play for Scotland and getting a goal made it even better. Hopefully, that might help my chances of a start against Kilmarnock. I’ve been playing well for the [Hearts] under-20s and scoring for Scotland is a big thing, so, hopefully, I’ll get a chance and I can do well.”
If he does get the chance, Oliver is anxious to avoid a similar mishap to the one that befell him in December, when he was injured against Inverness in his first start in the Premiership.
“I got injured at the wrong time. I’d just broken into the team but, in the very first minute, I tore my ligaments.
“I had worked so hard to get into the team. Now I need to keep working hard to try and regain my space in the team.
“Being so young I wasn’t really expecting to play for the first team this season, so even getting the chance to come on has been brilliant. It’s been a great experience and it’s helped me as a player as well. I hope I can get a run in the team now and I can start scoring.
“I’m a natural striker and we don’t have many of them at the club right now, so I’d like to prove I am worthy of a place. And the best way to do that will be by coming in and scoring goals.”
Oliver’s abilities are being nurtured by striking coach John Robertson who, as Hearts’ record goalscorer, knows a thing or two about the art of finishing. Oliver added: “He’s a legend at the club so I’m just trying to take in as much as I can from him.
“If I can learn from him I’m sure I can do well. I haven’t seen a lot of footage of him but I don’t need to – he tells me every day how many goals he scored! He’s still got it as well. You can see he can still finish a chance. He must have been a good player in his day – but you do get sick of listening to him at times!”
In addition to learning his trade as a striker, Oliver has also been working with strength and conditioning coach David Sykes with the aim of toughening up to cope with first-team football. “I’ve been in the gym all season working on getting quicker and building myself up. I’m not the biggest, so I need to be strong, and I think I’ve improved at everything as the season has gone on.
“First-team level is a lot harder than the under-20s. It’s more physical, it’s quicker, it’s just a lot harder all round, so I know I need to become a better athlete. I’ll be in here during the summer trying to make myself stronger but that depends if I get another contract. I’m up at the end of the season and I haven’t heard anything yet. We all need to wait and see what the new owners want to do. I’m playing for my future at the moment, but I’d love to stay if I can.”
Meanwhile, Craig Slater claims his Scotland under-21 debut proves switching to Kilmarnock was the right move.
The 19-year-old midfielder was handed his first run-out for Billy Stark’s side in Wednesday night’s 2-2 draw with Hungary. It came two years after he was forced to rip up his contract with St Mirren after growing disillusioned with his lack of first-team chances. He soon found a new home at Rugby Park and 17 appearances for Allan Johnston’s side this season – plus that U21 debut – is evidence, he claims, that quitting the Buddies was the correct decision.
He said: “There were so many players out of contract at the time I left St Mirren and it was a hard time for me. But I believed in my own ability and knew I could show what I can do if I got my chance. So coming to Kilmarnock and getting my opportunity in the first team was the best thing that could have happened to me. I have stayed in the team and now I have managed to make that breakthrough into the under-21s.
“It was my first call-up and it was great to test myself against really good opposition. Hopefully, if I keep doing well with Kilmarnock, then there will be many more. It’s brilliant to get the recognition by Billy Stark. It’s a nice wee boost for my confidence. It’s all happened so quick. But I am enjoying myself and playing with confidence. If you are doing that, then you are going to show your best form.”