You’re the guy tasked with replacing Callum Paterson, a Scotland international full-back but also Hearts’ joint-top goalscorer and a player valued at over £1million by the club hierarchy. Daunting doesn’t quite cover it.
That is the assignment Liam Smith undertakes, starting tonight against Aberdeen. Paterson will be out for nine or ten months recovering from cruciate knee ligament damage and Smith is the natural replacement at right-back.
He doesn’t pretend to be the marauding, goal-plundering beast that Paterson is. He doesn’t have a list of suitors up and down the country waiting for his Tynecastle contract to expire. Not yet, anyway. Smith is simply a steady and confident 20-year-old eager to cement himself in Hearts’ first team.
Profiting from such a horrendous injury to a team-mate isn’t his thing at all. Nonetheless, he fully understands that head coach Ian Cathro needs a competent right-back immediately. That makes him the man, and he is eager to seize the chance.
“It doesn’t matter who it is, nobody is going to play over Callum. Look at the way he’s been playing and the goals he’s scored,” said Smith, speaking exclusively to the Evening News.
“If I could get a run on my good side and show people how I can play there, it would be great. If I can show I’m capable of filling Callum’s boots, it can only be a good thing for myself.”
Cathro’s assessment of Smith indicates he has full faith in the player. “He’s not a player who should be underestimated. I think he’s a bit stronger in his mind than what can appear at times,” said the coach, referring to Smith’s quick recovery after a poor display at left-back at Dens Park last Friday.
When Paterson fell in a crumpled heap clutching his knee early in Tuesday’s 4-0 win against Kilmarnock, Smith was instantly summoned from his seat on the substitutes’ bench. He had been dropped after what he admits was a nightmare on Tayside as Hearts squandered a 2-0 lead in a 3-2 defeat. A quick and gratifying return included an assist for Arnaud Djoum against Kilmarnock.
“When you’re not starting the game, you expect just to sit down and watch the first half. Callum got injured and I was pleased to come back in after Dundee. It was good to get back playing on my right side,” he said.
“I think I did well so it was great to get last week out of the way and get back to playing well again. It’s always nice to get an assist, although it was ironic that it came from my left foot. It just settled me down a bit and helped me get back playing my normal game.”
Smith is still learning the cruel side of senior football after graduating from the Riccarton youth academy. That includes dealing with costly mistakes. “I was pretty low after last Friday. I hold my hands up – I made two mistakes and it cost us the game. To come back in and bounce back so quickly was really pleasing. It helped me put the Dundee game out of my mind,” he continued.
“It shows the manager still has confidence in me. Everyone makes mistakes and I hold my hands up. The fact is he still trusts me to go in and do a job. It’s a bit easier for me on my normal side after playing a couple of games on the left. I like getting back to playing on the right.
“I hadn’t really experienced that before. When I’ve come in, I’ve been pretty steady and not made any big errors. Last week was the first time I’ve felt like that and taken a dunt to my confidence. It was new to me but I think I handled it properly.
“For 48 hours, it was pretty raw. You think about it yourself because you know you’ve made a mistake. Once the game is gone, it’s done and you need to learn from it. Against Kilmarnock, I made sure I wasn’t doing anything too risky. I just played myself into the game. I feel I got back on track and I can forget about the Dundee game now.
“The gaffer hasn’t said a lot to me individually. He’s more focusing on trying to build the group. I think he’s big on togetherness and making sure we’re solid through good times and difficult times.”
Hearts are seeking a second successive win against Aberdeen after Cathro’s first three matches in charge brought two defeats and a draw. “It hasn’t been the start we all wanted but, now we’ve got that first win, we’re looking to push on,” said Smith. “Tonight gives us an opportunity to go into the winter break on a positive note.
“You know what you’re going to get from Aberdeen. They’re the team, along with Rangers, that we’re competing with near the top of the league. Aberdeen are pretty direct and they like to make it a bit of a fight. We’ll be up for it.”
Heading into such a vital fixture knowing he will play from the start, Smith is entitled to feel he has progressed in 2016.
“This has been a pretty successful year. Playing for Scotland Under-21s was great and being involved in Hearts’ European qualifiers was a good experience. I’m now trying to kick on and establish myself in the first team. That’s what I want to do in 2017.
“When you’re young, it’s good to break into the team, play a few games and then they bring you out again. Now, I need to try to go in and stay in. I can play in different areas of the pitch and I’m starting to build a bit of experience with different people in front of me and different formations.”
He even allows himself to feel and think like a first-team player now.
“I think so, yeah. At the start, you’re just trying to find your feet. I’ve been in the first-team dressing room for six months now and I’ve played more this season than I’ve ever done before. I’d say I’m starting to feel like a first-team player. I had trained with the first team a lot but then I used to go back up to the under-20 dressing room. Gradually, you become more comfortable and feel like you’re a part of it.”