Being packed off to Methil to toughen up would daunt many teenagers. For young Hearts defender Liam Smith, spending a few months on the Levenmouth coast is an ideal way to become battle-hardened.
The 18-year-old is in the middle of a five-month loan at East Fife and benefiting from the rough and tumble of life at Bayview. Regular first-team outings in League 2 are showing him the streetwise side of football, from barges and elbows to growls and verbals. By his own admission, it’s just what he needs.
Smith is a cultured right-back reared through the Riccarton youth academy who likes to attack. At the start of this season, with Callum Paterson firmly established in his position in the Hearts first team, head coach Robbie Neilson suggested a loan to East Fife. Smith didn’t hesitate to accept and the decision has proved wise.
When available, he has played every minute of every match and even scored his first senior goal in last month’s 2-2 draw with Queen’s Park. The learning curve is steep in the lower leagues but Smith is maximising the opportunity to toughen himself up.
“The things I need to work on are on the physical side,” he said, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “Playing for East Fife, you’re getting people being a bit nastier to you and giving you elbows. It teaches you about the game. Football isn’t all as nice as it seems at youth level. You don’t learn any of that in the youth games. That was one of the main reasons I wanted to go on loan.
“Robbie’s main objective was for me to play every week and to learn the other side of the game, the nastier side and the defensive side. I’d say I’m probably better going forward than I am defensively. If I can work on getting better defensively by playing week in and week out, then that would be beneficial.
“I’ve played 90 minutes in every game I’ve been involved in so far. It’s just a lot better getting out and playing in the professional leagues rather than playing under-20 games every week. It’s a lot more physical and a lot more realistic about how the game is. The under-20s is quite friendly.
“You think it’s all nice playing in the 20s but when you actually play first team you realise there’s a lot more to it. I noticed that in the couple of games I played for Hearts this season in the cups. Now, playing every week, you notice it a lot more. It’s important you learn some of that before you get chucked in at the deep end.”
A summer rule change permitting loanees to play under-20 matches for their parent club allows Smith to further hone his development closer to home. As a Fifer from Dalgety Bay, he knows Methil and the surrounding area. It might be considered slightly detached from Edinburgh’s hustle and bustle, but the Hearts management team are monitoring his progress there closely.
“Robbie spoke to me and said East Fife wanted me,” continued Smith. “He said he thought it would be a good thing for me and I agreed. Callum and Jordan McGhee had done really well in the first team so I was only going to be playing under-20s. Maybe occasionally on the bench for the first team. To go out and play regularly was a really good decision.
“I’m still playing quite regularly for the under-20s. Jack Ross [Hearts Under-20 coach] and Robbie speak to me after every game. I think they saw the move as helping my development rather than getting me out of the way. Jack’s been to see me play for East Fife and Robbie and Stevie Crawford [Hearts assistant coach] speak to me after games and ask how I’ve got on.”
Smith has two senior appearances for Hearts, in the Petrofac Training Cup and League Cup earlier this season. He is now cup-tied for both tournaments and sat out East Fife’s League Cup defeat by Rangers last week. The highlight of the loan so far is undoubtedly his first goal in professional football.
“It was nice because I don’t score many,” he admitted. “We were 2-1 down and pushing for an equaliser in the last ten minutes so I gambled and went forward. A ball was put into the box and bounced out and I just hit it on the edge of the box. It ended up in the bottom corner.
“A lot of my mates saw my name flash up on Soccer Saturday. I had quite a few texts when I got back to the dressing-room saying, ‘what the hell are you doing on Soccer Saturday?’ I think they had to take a second look at the telly. They couldn’t believe it was me.”
The time of reckoning will be when he begins competing for a first-team place with Hearts. Smith’s path through youth academy football has been a winding one. He joined Rangers from Hillfield Swifts Boys Club aged ten but was released at under-14 level. He joined Hearts but was placed in the squad a year below his own age level due to his size. It turned out to be a clever move.
“I was quite slight so they thought it would be good for me to play a year down,” he explained. “I played under-14s and under-15s a year below my age group and then went back up to my own age as a second-year under-17. At the end of that year I got a professional contract. I think playing a year down helped me because, again, I was playing every week.
“I’m due back at Hearts in January and I’ll just take it as it comes. Obviously, it would be nice to push Callum and Jordan when I come back but they’re both doing well at the moment. I’m happy to bide my time. If that means going back out on loan for another six months to get more experience, then I’d happily do that.
“Callum and Jordan have a bit more experience than me at first-team level. If I go out and gain that experience at senior level, then it will give me a better chance to push them when I come back. I’d hopefully get my chance next season.”
Clearly, Liam Smith has a career plan. Methil might not have featured in it initially but, for the teenager, Bayview is definitely the town’s new power station as he bids to become a more competitive footballer.