Liam Smith faces a critical few months to ensure season 2016/17 becomes his breakthrough year at Hearts. He started purposefully with a strong European debut in Estonia on Wednesday. Now it’s about building momentum, and eventually becoming the club’s established right-back.
Smith’s mind is clear, focused on the task in hand. He just played a key role in a forceful Hearts display and a historic achievement – four European away goals for the first time in Tynecastle history. He hopes progress to the Europa League second qualifying round can be simultaneous with the advancing of his own career.
The defender’s performance in Le Coq Arena was compelling and, aged just 20, augurs well for his own future. He knows this is a huge year as he tries to take that final step in the transition from Riccarton youth academy to first-team mainstay. Callum Paterson remains Hearts’ first-choice right-back, Smith the ambitious understudy.
Paterson played as a rampaging right winger against Infonet and scored the opening goal 90 seconds into the 4-2 win in Tallinn. It remains to be seen whether head coach Robbie Neilson keeps him there next week, when Hearts travel to Malta to face Birkirkara in the first leg of that second qualifier.
Smith can only hope he retains his place, and that this is the start of year which could be the making of his career in professional football.
“I’ve been here for a long time. I’ve played in the youth teams, I’ve played in the under-20s and now I’m trying to break through,” he told the Evening News.
“I played a few times last season. To get a taste of it last year and then come back and be thrown right into it again straight away, I’m enjoying every minute of it. I’ll keep my feet on the ground. I’m not getting ahead of myself. I’ll work hard every day and, when I get the shout, I’ll be there.
“It’s definitely a big season for me. I got a taste of the first team last year when Callum got injured. I’m hungry to push on now and be more of a threat to Callum’s position. If I can do that by working hard and hopefully playing in more games like against Infonet, then it would be great for me.
“I think I did well the other night. It was a new formation and, with Callum playing further up the pitch, it’s maybe something the gaffer could look at again. I was just over the moon to play.
“To be my age and play in a game like that, I’m proud. It can only help me going forward. It’s a different experience from playing Scottish football, and obviously it’s nothing like the under-20s.”
Coaching staff made a point of offering praise in the dressing-room at full-time on Wednesday.
“They all said they were delighted with me. I think they were really pleased with all the boys but Robbie took me aside and had a word with me. He said: ‘You were excellent.’ I was really happy hearing that,” revealed Smith.
“It was a brilliant experience all round. I was delighted to be told I was playing in Europe, it’s not something that comes around too often. To get the shout and play from the start was great. Then, to get the early goal and control the game like we did, plus score four goals, was pleasing. I think we did really well.”
Flying across the Baltic Sea to Tallinn on Tuesday morning, Smith already knew he was playing.
“The day before we flew out, the gaffer pulled me into his office and told me he was playing me from the start. He told me what he wanted me to do and I was delighted,” he explained.
“It could have been a tough night if we hadn’t started so strongly. Fortunately, Jamie Walker’s delivery was brilliant all night. We got players on the end of a few of his crosses. Getting the goal so early settled everyone down. It certainly settled me down and I enjoyed the game.
“It was good having Callum in front of me. He’s a handful wherever he plays. When he’s that bit further forward, I think he gives the other team’s full-back all sorts of problems. That allows me to get forward as well.
“You could see in the first leg that we were only a couple of weeks into our pre-season. That extra week really helped us. I’d only played sixty minutes at Cowdenbeath last weekend because I was injured when we were up at St Andrews. It took me about ten or 15 minutes to get into the game on Wednesday night but we got the job done.”
For every ounce of pride Smith felt on the pitch in Tallinn, it was probably multiplied back home. His mum and dad tuned into the game online via the Infonet website. They would have felt their hearts burst at their son’s composure under a fair degree of pressure.
“The game was shown on their website so my mum and dad were watching at home, kicking every ball,” Smith revealed. He will now take time to evaluate his own performance through video footage.
“We get all our video clips sent to us a couple of days after the game. Alex, our video guy, is really good. I’ll go over the video and look at what I did well and what I could do better. I just want to improve all the time.”
That desire for betterment is a key part of the full-back’s make-up. There should be few concerns if Neilson selects him again in Malta.
“Birkirkara is a different team. We don’t know what way they play or what system might suit. If I get the shout, hopefully I can do well again,” continued Smith. I’m just enjoying every minute of this. I’m quite relaxed on the pitch, I don’t really get fazed by it or nervous. It’s good nerves and I use them to help me in the game.”