LIAM SMITH has been promoted to Hearts’ first-team squad permanently after proving he can handle life in the Scottish Premiership.
Head coach Robbie Neilson revealed today that the teenager will still play at under-20 level but is now firmly considered part of the senior group.
Smith impressed during a four-game run at right-back last month when Callum Paterson was out injured. Hearts beat Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Partick Thistle and Dundee without conceding a goal whilst Smith was in the side. That run then ended with a 3-0 home defeat by St Johnstone.
Smith was left out of the starting line-up for subsequent matches against Celtic, Aberdeen and Inverness. Paterson returned from his six-week absence in the Highlands on Tuesday night, whilst his understudy was an unused substitute.
Neilson has moved to reassure the youngster that he is very much part of the future at Tynecastle. Officially, he remains captain of Hearts Under-20s but the first-team squad is where he now belongs.
“You never know whether a young player can handle it until you put him in. We’ve put Liam in and he can handle it, so now he’s a first-team player,” Neilson told the Evening News. “He’s part of the first-team squad so, if somebody picks up and injury, then he’s in. Then it’s up to him to hold on to his place.
“Liam understands why he’s been left out of the team. At Parkhead a couple of weeks ago, we changed our shape and he was put on the bench. We felt that asking him to play that wing-back role away to Celtic was a difficult one.
“Against Aberdeen last Friday, the key areas are the wide areas and we felt we could do with a wee bit more experience out there. Liam understands that. He’s still a young kid and he’s done really well. He just has to wait for his turn again.”