Sam Nicholson says he had to apologise to his team-mates after many of them were floored by a vomiting bug smuggled into the Hearts camp by the returning Scotland Under-21 players. But the Gorgie youngster is hoping to make amends by turning in a performance that will leave Aberdeen feeling sick at Tynecastle tonight.
The head to head with Derek McInnes’ men was supposed to come at the end of a busy week, which started with with trip to Parkhead and was scheduled to have a match at Inverness sandwiched in between.
But, after a bout of gastroenteritis swept through the squad, the club were granted a postponement of their midweek fixture and all players were told to stay away from the training ground to prevent anyone else falling ill.
Returning to Riccarton yesterday, head coach Robbie Neilson was happy to report that everyone had bounced back and insisted that while it was not an ideal build-up to such an important match, with the Gorgie club still expressing an interest in usurping their guests in second place, he was confident that adrenaline would see them through.
That did not ease Nicholson’s guilt. While his boss refused to reveal the primary carrier, others were less reticent.
“The rest of the boys are pointing the finger at me and Jordan McGhee. We’re taking it with a pinch of salt. But we’ve obviously had to make a couple of apologies. It wasn’t meant – but a lot of the boys weren’t too happy with us!” said Nicholson.
“I felt OK when I came back from the 21s but felt worse on Sunday. We had been in training, I went home and just started feeling ill and I had to pull a sickie on the Monday and Tuesday – because I couldn’t actually move out of my bed, to be honest.
“I feel a lot better, just a bit tired. But one of the nights, I was up all night being sick. Thankfully that’s passed.”
But he was surprised to learn that so many of his team-mates had been felled. “I texted our sport scientist, on Sunday, just after training. I just wanted to let him know that I wouldn’t be in training the next day because I wasn’t well. He texted back to say: ‘I’ve had messages from about ten other players, so you’re not the only one’.
“Obviously the plan was to leave on the Monday and stay overnight in Inverness. I had no idea that there were only about four first-team players on the bus. That was a surprise to me. I do feel a wee bit guilty but I’m quite pleased I didn’t miss a game!”
The match will now go ahead on Tuesday. But first the Hearts players have to find enough energy to get the better of Aberdeen.
“The club doctor was texting us all when we were away, giving us advice because we were all so dehydrated. He kept telling us how important it was to take in water.
“But every time I took in water, I was spewing it up! It wasn’t helping much…I actually had my first solid meal on Wednesday, the first food I’d eaten since Sunday. I had about five portions! I was just happy to be feeling better.
“But [against Aberdeen] I think adrenaline will get us through. Playing at Tynecastle under the floodlights is something special and that’s sometimes all the motivation you need, so it is good that we’ve got a big game. Everybody does that bit extra, even if we are feeling tired or ill.
“I can’t see any of the boys struggling during the game because, at Tynecastle, we always get that bit extra. Hopefully it gets us the win.”
The last time the teams met at Tynecastle, Hearts produced one of their best displays of the season to emerge triumphant but that was in the Scottish Cup. In both the league meetings thus far, the Pittodrie side have gathered all six points, accounting for half of the 12-point gap between the teams as they head towards the split.
Hearts could cure some of their ills with a win tonight and claw back some more of the deficit if they could claim a victory against Inverness. But for that they will need to prove they have the stomach for the battle and deliver a repeat of January’s high intensity cup showing.
“It was one of the better ones in terms of atmosphere and build up,” said Neilson, who has enjoyed renewing old rivalries with Aberdeen this term.
“The last time we had played them in the league at Tynecastle we got turned over so it was pleasing to get a decent result and come out of that game with a good performance. This game will be similar to that one and we need to win the game.
“There is a good rivalry between the clubs. There have been periods when we have been on top and vice-versa. We went away for a year and came back and the teams are going toe-to-toe again.”