David Smith believes Hearts will be a force to be reckoned with in next season’s Championship as long as they can keep their burgeoning young squad intact.
The Tynecastle side are about to end their 31-year stay in Scotland’s top flight, with the confirmation of their relegation a possibility even if they win at Partick Thistle today.
A dismal run between September and December, when the young players were learning the hard way about the demands of playing regular Premiership football, proved particularly damaging to Hearts’ hopes of overcoming a 15-point deduction and avoiding relegation.
However, a much-improved burst of form since the turn of the year, in which they have lost only four of their last ten league games, has provided evidence that their highly-regarded batch of young prospects have developed as this difficult season has progressed.
While the fact they are 18 points adrift at the foot of the table paints a somewhat depressing picture for Hearts fans, if the 15-point penalty were to be removed, they would be only three points adrift of a far more experienced St Mirren side and within nine points of all their bottom-six rivals.
Their renewed competitiveness ensures that, assuming all goes well off the field and that the club are able to retain the bulk of their key players, confidence will be high as they bid to win promotion from the Championship, which will include the might of Rangers.
“A season in the top flight has given us experience and if we’re playing in the Championship next season then hopefully we can take it into that league, prove we’re good players and come back up,” he said. “We’ve got a good team and if we can keep this squad and maybe add a few then we’ll be a match for anyone.
“Rangers are a massive club and they’ll be determined to get back into the top flight and winning trophies again but we’re a big club too and I’m sure we’ll give them good competition. Hearts going to Ibrox and Rangers coming to Tynecastle will be massive. The Championship could be more competitive than the Premiership next season and there will be some big games to look forward to.”
Once the gloom of relegation lifts, Hearts can take heart from the prospect of the likes of Smith, Jamie Walker, Dale Carrick, Sam Nicholson, Callum Paterson and Jason Holt flourishing further in the less-demanding Championship. The current form of these youngsters is a far cry from the gloomy autumn months when many were being written off as they struggled to hold their own in Scotland’s unforgiving top flight.
“The manager said after the Aberdeen game that we’ve all improved from the start of the campaign to now,” Smith continued. “I’ve definitely got better with experience. I was in and out at the start of the season but recently I’ve had a good run. I’ve played in the last three games since I came back from injury and I feel I’ve got a bit of consistency now. I’m enjoying it. I’m stronger physically as I’ve been working in the gym. I’m a bit more confident as well and that’s key in football.
“We’ve all had to adapt our game since stepping up to the first team because it’s a different kind of football from the Under-20s. You don’t get away with as much in the Premiership as you do in the 20s and you’re playing for points so you need to win, whatever it takes. You need to do the dirty side of the game a bit more because you’re playing against experienced players, and you don’t come up against them in the Under-20s.”
While Hearts are resigned to their fate – they would need to win their last six games and St Mirren would have to lose all of theirs to stay up – they are intent on leaving the Premiership with their heads held high. Today’s trip to Firhill will evoke memories of that heady Friday night in August when Hearts fans dared to dream about pulling off their survival mission after Jamie Walker’s late equaliser took them within 11 points of St Mirren and Ross County.
“We went to Firhill early in the season and picked up a point and we thought we might be able to beat relegation back then,” said Smith. “We had a great start to the season, beating Hibs in the second game, but a few things went against us and we fell out of it.
“We know that no matter what we do at Firhill, if St Mirren get a point against Motherwell we’re relegated. It would be great to get a win and put a bit of pressure on. It would be a miracle if we stayed up, but we’ll try and stay positive. We’ve nothing to lose at Partick so hopefully we just go out and express ourselves like we did in the last two games.”
Hearts’ on-field travails pale in significance compared to their off-field issues. The outcome of Ubig and Ukio Bankas creditors’ meetings, due to be held this Monday, will have a big say on their hopes of emerging from administration. “We can’t influence what happens on Monday so we have to concentrate on the issues on the park and hopefully get a win,” said Smith. “When you cross that white line it’s about playing football. You don’t think about off-field matters when you’re on the pitch.”