Calem Nieuwenhof's first experience of Tynecastle Park wasn't the friendly defeat to Leeds United at the end of July, a week after Heart of Midlothian had announced the signing of the Australian midfielder.

The 23-year-old was one of 15,518 who turned up for a midweek Premiership encounter with Dundee back in 2019. Speaking to Hearts Standard in Tynecastle Arms on a quiet Monday afternoon, he recalled the encounter. Even though he couldn't remember the opposition there was a vivid memory of the atmosphere and the fans' passion.

"I think Hearts might have lost because the fans weren’t too happy," he said.

Nieuwenhof was correct. Some detective work uncovered it was a 2-1 loss to Dundee in January 2019. 

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He was just a teenager, part of the under-19s Australian Schoolboys Tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland. Prior to the visit to Gorgie to watch a Hearts side that included Colin Doyle, Conor Shaughnessy, Aidan Keena and David Vanecek, Australia had played at Ochilview. It was one of nine matches in the space of 15 days with Nieuwenhof finishing third top scorer with two goals.

Within four years he was taking a significant step toward a return to Tynecastle in the Western Sydney Wanderers midfield, having transferred from Sydney FC, his boyhood club. It was there, partnering Morgan Schneiderlin for a period, where he became a first-team regular, emerging as a player with potential. 

"It was tricky," he said of switching Sydney for their city rivals. "When I was younger and growing up I supported Sydney FC but went through a period where I had a couple of injuries and was struggling for game time.

"For me, it was the most natural decision to go to the Wanderers. They offered me a lifeline and put a lot of confidence in me. It was probably the best decision to go over there because as soon as I got over there the coach put a lot of faith in me and he played me. I ended up playing every game that season and we ended up having a strong season."


On Schneiderlin, he added: "It was surreal when he first game into the club. He was such a big player, I had known about him for years, he played at massive clubs. To have him in and around the training sessions, you learn so much from a player like that.

"The confidence he carries at all times and how he carries himself on the field being able to play next to him it was easy to see what a classy player he is and I felt like I learned a lot from playing with him even for just the few months he was at Sydney."

After just one season he was off, set for a move across the world, Hearts winning the race to sign him.

"It ended up happening quickly," Nieuwenhof said. "Throughout the season my agent had told me a few Scottish clubs were interested, the season finished and out of nowhere, he said Hearts had made an offer. As soon as I heard that I was really excited to go. I knew straight away it was such a big club and something I couldn’t say no to so jumped at it.

"Once I had signed I spoke briefly to Naisy about coming over here, getting involved and getting settled. Everyone at the club made it really easy. It all happened really quickly and before I knew it I was on the training pitch over in Edinburgh."

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Nieuwenhof spent much of his childhood outdoors. After all, he was living in Sydney, he was close to the beach and dad Jason had a passion for surfing and still goes out every day. That passion was passed on to Calem at a young age. He would partake in Nippers, like a Cubs equivalent for surfing, he would hang out at the beach, play "touch footy" and, naturally, would have a go at cricket but admittedly he was "no good at it".

The same couldn't be said for actual football. Like surfing, the sport was another passion of the father passed on to the son. 

"He played a little bit when he was younger and then from when I was really young he got me involved in the sport as soon as I could start walking and running," Nieuwenhof explained. "He had me out in the backyard kicking the ball about having a bit of fun.

"Since then I haven’t looked back really. I’ve played it my whole life. Playing in Australia is different to here and in Europe, football is probably the third or fourth biggest sport back home.

"I’ve always loved it and had that drive to be the best that I can be. I’ve always been quite competitive in nature and my dad has always pushed me really hard. It’s really good to have him there and he’s had a massive impact on my career so far."

Both his parents have become "massive Jambos", staying up in the early hours to watch every game. They visited in December, a trip which saw them take in the win over Celtic from the away end at Parkhead, spend time in the Highlands and a visit to the hospital when Nieuwenhof broke a bone in his hand.

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"Even when I’m injured they are still up at 3-4 am Sydney time messaging me on the group chat, giving me a good rundown of the game," he said. "They have been massive for me and it is really good to have a strong base I can lean on to talk to, whether I have had a good game or a bad game they are always going to be there and support me. It means a lot and really helped me loads."

The above only goes to emphasise the magnitude of moving nearly 17,000km across the world. Living away from home for the first time, leaving his family behind, while adapting to a new job, new culture, new climate and a different pace of life, including swapping going to the beach to chill out with cranking up the heating and chilling on the couch. 

Yet, there were "no reservations". In fact, it was the opposite. Playing in Europe was a dream fulfilled.

"Back in Australia, I had a couple of players in my team who had played in Scotland, Oli Bozanic was one," he said. "All he had to say about the club was really positive things. That gave me confidence to come over here

"Having the Aussies in the team made my decision much easier. Scotland is a place where a lot of Aussies have come recently, have done well and got into the national team."

He added: "It was a pretty straightforward decision for me and I've not looked back."

Hearts Standard: Calem Nieuwenhof produced a big moment with his goal against Dundee

It would have been easy and, on a personal level, natural for Nieuwenhof to look back to the comfort of Australia and the A-League. The lifestyle off the pitch and the serenity on it, compared to Scotland.

There were doubts and questions expressed by fans of the midfielder and whether he had what it took to get to grips with the intensity and pace of the Scottish football midfield battle which requires physicality, awareness, cunning and quick-thinking. He could not afford to live up to the "Sleepy" moniker bestowed on him by former Hearts star Ryan McGowan when they were teammates at Sydney.

Hearts boss Steven Naismith was adamant throughout that Nieuwenhof would come good, all it would take was time with good indicators in that "he was comfortable going into tackles and he was comfortable taking a bang".

The player himself offered an interesting insight. He had to be exposed to it to learn, to acclimatise. Now he is speaking like a seasoned Premiership pro. When asked about the Scottish Cup semi-final with Rangers he discussed "high levels of energy", being "physical" and knowing when to "foul them when we have to". 

"You do hear how different the football is in terms of the pace and the passion," he said. "It's one thing hearing about it and another thing actually being involved in it and playing in it and dealing with it.

"The intensity on the pitch and the passion off the pitch have been the two main major adjustments. The A-League is really great, there are so many quality players there but there is definitely a different style of football. You come over here and you’ve got teams that don’t necessarily want to play football as much and turn the game into a really physical contest. That is something I have had to adjust to personally. You can’t back down from the physical side and you are going to have to put in an elbow or shoulder and know when to foul a player. Getting used to the pace of the game and knowing how to deal with the type of teams who just want to smash you.

"It definitely took time to get used to the pace but that was only going to come from the experience and being involved in those games, learning first hand. It’s been getting to the stage where I can play week in, week out."

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Not only has it got to that stage for Nieuwenhof, but the fans have also reached the point where they hope to see his name in the starting line-up week in, week out. His absence in the recent 2-1 loss at Ross County was noted.

Speaking to Hearts Standard earlier this year, Naismith expressed his desire for the midfielder to realise he can be the "main man" in the midfield, displaying confidence and even some arrogance. 

"Naisy has been really good to me, coaching me a lot and giving me freedom in the midfield role to get forward and get involved in attacks," Nieuwenhof explained. "I’ve felt over the last couple of months I’ve been able to do that more, I’ve got a couple of goals and that’s something I want to contribute to the team, goals and assists.

"I feel that has been really positive for me, getting forward and helping the team when we are attacking and defensively I can still do my job, getting back and helping the team in that sense. 

"Each game I try to get involved as much as I can and help the team out the best way I can do."

That has been notable in the past three months. The increased impact perhaps started with the 3-2 win over Dundee where Nieuwenhof found the back of the net to start the comeback from 2-0 down. It was his standout individual moment since joining Hearts, noting the importance of the strike. He also mentioned the win over Celtic, a game where he registered an assist when slipping. Was it meant or was there an element of luck?

He laughed: "Everyone said I slipped but the way I look at it it was 100 per cent on purpose!

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"Shanks fed the ball into me and I got a bit excited, I just felt my legs go. Lucky enough for me I was able to prod it back and Shanks was in the right spot as he always seems to be and put it home. A good outcome."

Those moments arrived in January and March, either side of winning the club's Hearts Standard Player of the Month award, as voted by the fans. His popularity was evident in the Tynie Arms with regulars in the pub waiting to have their photo taken with him once the interview had been concluded, including one gentleman donning a jumper knitted in the 90s with a sizeable Hearts crest.

"A bit surreal," he admitted of the award win. "Honestly, I was a bit surprised and really stoked. For me it is about getting consistency and taking each game as it comes and getting to a stage where I put sold performances in week after week and I feel the last couple of months I’ve been able to do that.

"[The fans] have been good to me so far. I’ve seen a few here and there, had a small chat. Haven’t got too much slack yet so that’s a positive!

"Coming to a club like Hearts, there are so many fans, they are so passionate and they seem to be everywhere you go. So in that aspect, it is different to what I am used to and where I came from but it is really positive and be in a city where football is the No.1 sport and where there is so much passion and love for the club, it’s nice to be involved in that."

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He has also discovered a city he really enjoys - albeit not a fan of Portobello beach in comparison to what he was used to back home - a welcoming football club and dressing room.

"Off the field it has been really easy to settle in, the club has been great, there are great people around us always helping us whenever we have issues or anything," he said. "That’s definitely made my life a lot easier and it’s been a good transition into living in Edinburgh. 

"The dressing room is really great, all the boys in there are such great characters, there are really good personalities and everyone gets along really well. Everyone’s got a really good mentality, we can joke around with each other and have a laugh. When it’s time to get serious we all switch on and know when to put our best foot forward.

"It’s really nice to have the Aussie boys in the squad, they’ve been awesome to chat with and learn from. Everyone in the squad, English boys, Scottish boys, Japanese boys get along really well. It’s a really tight-knit bunch of lads."

It is also only fair to allow space for a rebuttal to Kenneth Vargas' complaints about Nieuwenhof's music taste with the duo carpooling into training each day.

"I don’t know what he’s talking about," he laughed. "I think he needs to learn more English to be honest, I don’t think he can understand anything I put on! 

"He just likes Bad Bunny and that’s it. I’ll say the same thing, I don’t know about that because that is Spanish and can’t understand a thing they are saying."

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The aim for Nieuwenhof now is clear. Ensure European qualification, try to overcome Rangers in the Scottish Cup semi-final, earn full international recognition and become an Olympian. 

"Any kid’s goal who grows up playing football in Australia is to play for the Socceroos one day," he said. "I feel like I’m at a really good place in my career being at a big club knowing if I do well, put in good performances consistently that will give me the best chance to get a call-up eventually

"On top of that, we have the 23s coming up at the Olympics. That’s a massive goal of mine so hopefully, we can qualify because that would be an awesome experience, going across to Paris to compete in that. It’s something I am really looking forward to and hoping for."

Hearts won't sanction the player's involvement in the AFC U-23 Championships, which double up as Olympic qualifiers, next month because of important games. But if Tony Vidmar's side qualify, Nieuwenhof could miss the start of next season with the Olympics football tournament running from July 24 to August 9. 

Should Hearts qualify for the Europa League play-off round, Nieuwenhof would be back in time to be involved.

"I really want to push the team, secure third spot and hopefully lock in European football for next year because that would be awesome," he said. "I’ve spoken to all the boys in the dressing room who have played European football and it sounds unreal. 

"With the little taste I did get being in the stands for the Rosenborg game you can see how big those nights are. That’s something I am really looking forward to."