FIVE weeks ago, Gordon Smith’s first-team bridge burned down amidst a fiery Jim Jefferies tirade in the Almondvale dressing room after a pre-season defeat by Livingston. Yet tonight he starts for Hearts on the most momentous evening of his fledgling career at White Hart Lane. He is somewhat surprised, not to mention delighted, by the turnaround.
Smith was blamed for the 1-0 loss last month after missing several scoring opportunities. That he was searching for both fitness and sharpness cut little ice with his irate manager.
“We should have won 4-1, Smith will never get a better chance to get a hat-trick. I was disappointed with some of them but I think you find things out,” complained Jefferies after the game.
That was the 20-year-old’s last senior appearance, his route to the first-team apparently destroyed in one afternoon. “Jefferies gave me a hard time at half-time that day, just saying I needed to get my finger out. But I’m a striker and I’d be more worried if I wasn’t getting chances. If I don’t put them away then I’m sure I’ll get the next one. That’s how I look at it. It was only a pre-season friendly and players were still finding their match sharpness.”
The arrival of Paulo Sergio in Jefferies’ place imbued Smith with fresh optimism. Tonight brings the opportunity he has been craving at one of British football’s most illustrious venues.
White Hart Lane, even empty, is awe-inspiring. Like a recording studio where the surrounding air carries the aura of so many legendary performers.
Smith relaxes against a wall in the tunnel area, trying to take it all in. He is about to play in a Europa League play-off tie against one of the giants of English football. The patience shown since he lashed an unstoppable volley for Hearts against Hibs 19 months ago is finally being rewarded.
He started only three matches for the Edinburgh club in the intervening period, although he played 34 times in and scored 11 goals in the First Division last season whilst on loan at Stirling Albion.
“I enjoyed being on loan and I felt I really improved as a player,” explained Smith. “I came back to Hearts but it was only two games into the season when the manager left so I didn’t play.
“Obviously, he was going to start the season with his more experienced players. I’m getting a chance under this manager so I need to try and take it.
“He (Sergio) told me I need to work hard in every training session, I’ve not to treat each day like just another session. He said I need to want it more every day. He said he looks at all the small details in everything we do and they all count. He told me to believe in myself. He said he believes in me so I should believe in myself as well.
“It was great to hear him say that. The best thing for you is for the manager to keep talking to you.
“There’s nothing worse when you aren’t getting spoken to and you aren’t playing. The new guy is good in that way.
“ I read in the Evening News that he thinks I’ve got a future but I have to keep working hard. I’m looking forward to it and I’m excited. The biggest stadium I’ve played at so far is probably Tynecastle, so this is a big night for me. To start a game at White Hart Lane is brilliant.”
Anyone who witnessed the fate which befell Smith at Tynecastle two weeks ago could not possibly grudge him this opportunity. With only minutes remaining against Aberdeen, and with Hearts 3-0 ahead, he was told he was going on as substitute. He hurriedly readied himself for his first outing under Sergio, only for Eggert Jonsson to suffer a rib injury and force a change of plan. Smith was told to sit down again.
He took off his shirt and angrily slammed it against the perspex dugout whilst giggling team-mates pounced on an opportunity to mock a colleague. Yet Smith is entitled to argue he is now getting the last laugh. “I found out on Tuesday that I would be playing from the start tonight,” he said.
“Usually the manager puts his starting team up on the wall a couple of days before the game, and this time I was in it.
“It took me by surprise a wee bit considering I’ve not played all season. It’s a big boost even though we’re 5-0 down because this is a big game and he’s throwing players like me and Scott Robinson in there. Obviously he has faith in us.
“In training the gaffer always brings in a couple of under-19 boys, which encourages them. If they see me players like me and Scott playing, then obviously it gives them hope. There are a lot of players at the club pushing to play in the first team now.
“I’ve got a chance and I want a good team performance, obviously including myself. I’m not feeling under pressure, although maybe I will when I walk out in front of all the fans. I’ll just take it in my stride, as will all the younger ones who are playing.
“Arvydas is still young, Temps is only a couple of years older. It will be a huge learning curve for us.
“When I came to Hearts I was 18 and I’m still only 20. I improved a lot as a player on loan at Stirling last season and I feel stronger for that. It’s experience I need now. I’d like to play as much for Hearts as possible this season.”
Hearts team (4-4-1-1): MacDonald; McGowan, Webster, Zaliukas, Grainger; Novikovas, Robinson, Jonsson, Templeton; Skacel; G Smith.