STANDING with tear-filled eyes deep in the bowels of Hampden Park, Gordon Smith knew his Hearts career was over. His team-mates were preparing to take the field in the League Cup final and yet the striker was out in the corridor, suited and booted, immersed in his own world. It was his lowest ebb; the moment he realised he was finished at Tynecastle.
For weeks he’d been pestered in the street by fans asking why he wasn’t playing more often. He couldn’t answer them. Smith’s ongoing omission was as confusing for the player as it was supporters.
The longer it went on, the more likely he was to leave when his contract expired at the end of the season. On Sunday, March 17, the team named to face St Mirren at the national stadium brought confirmation that he would be seeking pastures new.
“The worst I ever felt was when I didn’t make the bench for the League Cup final,” said Smith, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “I had tears in my eyes because I thought I had a good chance of making an appearance at Hampden in a cup final. I just stood in the corridor wondering what was next for me. I felt if I wasn’t picked for that then there wasn’t much of a future for me.
“I was sick of people asking ‘what you doing wrong?’ and ‘why are you not getting a chance?’ It’s part of football. There are a million opinions out there and every time I spoke to someone in the street they were telling me I should’ve got a chance.
“I got sick of listening to that but I just tried to keep myself to myself. For me, there is only one opinion that matters - the manager’s.”
Both John McGlynn and Gary Locke used Smith sparingly. After four starts all season, he was told by Hearts last month that he was being released. It came as no surprise but the 22-year-old felt both regret and relief. He desperately wanted to make more of an impression after arriving from Livingston in 2009. However, the chance of a fresh start was welcomed at the end of a dispiriting time.
“I’m looking forward to a new challenge and I’m eager to get going with a new team now,” he continued. “I’ve been so frustrated for the last two years at Hearts, although I’ve tried not to show it. My dad, my brother, my pals and my girlfriend have kept my head up and encouraged me when I’ve been down. I’ve tried to go into training and be happy because there’s no point being depressed. I tried to be bubbly and impress the manager.
“It is hard when you aren’t playing because doubts can start creeping into your head. I just stayed as positive as I could. I knew I’d do well whenever I got a chance and I think I did do well when I got that run of four games in December. I just had to stay on my toes. I remember sitting in the stands with Ryan McGowan at Kilmarnock at the start of last season (2011/12).
“He was in the same position as me, but soon after he got his chance in the team and never looked back. He had a great season and I took encouragement from that.”
Son of Gordon Smith senior, the former Hearts forward of the late 1970s, Smith junior will be best remembered for a volley against Hibs at Easter Road in his first season at Tynecastle. “That was the high point,” he smiled. “I was only a young boy, aged 18, making my full debut. For a Hearts fan, it was a dream come true. It was a great feeling and it’s just unfortunate there weren’t more goals.”
There was one more. At the time it didn’t seem all that significant, but without it, well, for Hearts fans, that doesn’t bear thinking about. “It was a relief to get the goal against Auchinleck in the Scottish Cup because there could have been an upset on the cards if we didn’t score,” recalled Smith of the slender 1-0 fourth-round win against a plucky Ayrshire junior team. His opportunism set Hearts on the road to Hampden.
“Auchinleck were all over us like a rash. Looking back now, we’ve won the cup and I played a massive part in possibly the biggest Edinburgh derby Hearts have ever played. It might not have happened if I hadn’t scored that day. The goal took about five bounces on a dodgy pitch before it hit the net but I’ll take a goal off my shin, my backside or anywhere.
“Goals aren’t everything but as a striker you are judged on goals. I was in the team in December and the team did well, which pleased me even though I didn’t score. Looking back now, maybe if I’d scored I’d have got a longer run. But you need a good run to get goals.
“I felt I did well at Hearts initially when Csaba Laszlo was manager. He played two up front at times with myself and Christian Nade. Then it was myself and Scott Robinson. Maybe it would’ve been different if Csaba had still been here, but that’s another problem I’ve had. There have been so many managers at Hearts and it’s no good for anyone when you’re trying to impress a different guy every year.”
The experience has benefitted him despite the lack of game time. “In my first season I did really well. Playing at White Hart Lane was a great night and fantastic to be involved in. Overall, I’ve had a great experience playing for Hearts but I haven’t played enough games.”