Liam Smith senses the chance to cement his Hearts reputation during the final five games of the season.
Callum Paterson, the club’s established right-back, is injured and leaving on freedom of contract this summer. Smith is therefore out to make an impression.
Talks are underway to secure the Slovenian right-back, Andraz Struna, on an extended contract before his current deal expires next month. It would be natural to assume that he will begin next season as first-choice, provided negotiations reach a successful conclusion.
Nothing is certain, though, which is why Smith is treating the last five games of the Ladbrokes Premiership campaign like five cup finals – starting this afternoon against Partick Thistle at Tynecastle. The 21-year-old has been understudy to Paterson for the last three seasons and played on loan at East Fife and Raith Rovers to gain valuable first-team experience. The next few weeks are critical in his fledgling career.
He played in a back four which kept clean sheets in Hearts’ last two matches and is eager to continue the good work. “I want to be in the team as much as I can,” said Smith. “I was in earlier in the season and then I had quite a lot of time out. So to have worked my way back in is a positive and now it’s my responsibility to keep going and keep my place. You never know what is going to happen come the summer so, if I can put down a marker now, then it gives me a positive going into pre-season and next season.
“We need to put the previous games to bed and focus on the five we have ahead of us. We’re taking one game at a time, starting on today. We just do all our work during the week building up to the one game. Three points is important to give us a bit of momentum going into the four after that.”
Thistle arrive in Edinburgh with serious momentum and targeting a fifth-place finish ahead of Hearts. The Firhill club sit sixth, four points behind today’s hosts. “They’ve done really well and I’ve read them saying they’re pushing for fifth now. I think they have every right to think that because they have done well,” said Smith.
“We’re not looking behind us, we need to look forward. If we take care of business then fourth place is still in our sights. With the way the spilt is you are playing in-form teams so points can be won or lost everywhere. We won’t be looking at the other results, if we focus on ourselves then that’s all we can do.”
A two-week break has allowed the Hearts head coach Ian Cathro more time to impart his ideas to players. He is eager to finish the season with a flourish after inconsistent results since he took over at Tynecastle in December. “I think it has allowed the gaffer to put forward more points than he would in a short space of time. It has given us time to work on the things we want to work on or things he has seen in previous games that haven’t been good enough. So a wee break has been a positive,” explained Smith.
“We train a lot at a good intensity most days and it hasn’t been any different.”
Smith added that part of the process has revolved around basic defending after the back-to-back clean sheets. “When your confidence is down and we haven’t been getting the results we’ve been looking for when we have been controlling games, you need to go back to basics. That starts with a clean sheet and from then on we can build and look to our influential players in front of us to go on and win the game.”
Away from the serious business of fighting for league points, Smith has been battling his own corner of late due to an identity mix-up. He shares his name with the Liverpudlian light-middleweight boxer, who had a controversial win over Welshman Liam Williams earlier this month. A clash of heads was missed by the referee and Williams had to wirthdraw with blood pouring from his head.
The result was a few strange tweets for the young Hearts defender. “What was all that about? It was hilarious. I was just having a laugh with my mates saying ‘look at this’. Then I stuck it up [on Twitter] and it just kind of took off. I didn’t get that many tweets, I was more having a laugh because I got a few. They weren’t abusive or anything. I didn’t even know what had happened.
“I was getting some saying I was a disgrace and how could I do that? I was like: ‘What are you talking about?’ We’d just beaten Dundee so I was thinking: ‘Surely not?’
“I can’t fight sleep! I’ve never been in a fight with my life. I don’t plan on it either.”
The only fight on Smith’s mind is the one for first-team recognition at Tynecastle.