Michael Smith sings praises of Hearts’ ‘ultimate pro’ Aaron Hughes

Aaron Hughes in action for Hearts against St Pat's. Pic: Bryan Keane
Aaron Hughes in action for Hearts against St Pat's. Pic: Bryan Keane
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Should Michael Smith require any extra motivation or inspiration during his time as a Hearts player, he now need only look to his left, where club and international team-mate Aaron Hughes is still going strong.

Smith will likely occupy the right wing-back spot in Ian Cathro’s new-look Hearts side after the 28-year-old signed a two-year deal last week. The Tynecastle club paid a nominal fee to secure him from Peterborough United, with the player making his first appearance in Wednesday’s 1-0 defeat to St Patrick’s Athletic in Dublin.

Hughes will form part of the back-three playing in-field from Smith. Not that the new Hearts number two is a wet-behind-the-ears rookie, but having his Northern Irish compatriot and nation’s most-capped outfield player of all time as a team-mate on a weekly basis can only be of benefit.

For the squad as a whole, Smith has seen the influence of Hughes and captain Christophe Berra at close quarters during this week’s training camp in Ireland.

“He’s the ultimate professional really,” said the new-arrival of Hughes. “Around the place, outside football, everything like that – he’s fantastic to be around and work with. You can tell he’s still as fit as a fiddle and he’d give all the young boys a run for their money I reckon. He’ll probably go until he’s 45!

“You can see why they [Hughes and Berra] have done so well in the game. They’re true professionals – they get on with their work, they do things properly ion training day in, day out and when it comes to games they’re 100 per cent committed.”

In addition to Hughes, 
Smith was also greeted by the familiar faces of Kyle Lafferty and, crucially, assistant manager Austin MacPhee. The Fifer’s Northern Ireland connections have proved invaluable to Ian Cathro so far this summer in persuading the players that ply their international trade under MacPhee and Michael O’Neill that their futures lie in Gorgie.

“He was the one that messaged me first saying ‘come up and have a look, speak to the manager and see what your thoughts are’, Smith recalled. “He’s a massive part of it and I’m hoping by doing well here I can get back in to the Northern Ireland squad.

“It does make it easier to know a few boys to start with then get to know the rest of the boys. To be fair, the 
squad is great – the lads been fantastic with me and I couldn’t be happier.

“I didn’t really ask anyone about Hearts, I wanted to make the choice myself. I spoke to Laff before coming up just to make sure he was signing! He confirmed he was so I thought ‘I’ll sign as well’. He’s a top player, he works hard and he’ll do fantastic in the SPFL. He can take the limelight! I’m happy staying under the radar and just getting on with my work.”

Hearts faced competition from Smith’s signature from English League Two in the shape of Coventry City, but the defender revealed that all it took was an initial look around in Edinburgh and his mind was made up.

“I was going to speak to both anyway just to make sure I made the right choice,” he admitted. “I was on holiday when I heard about interest from both of them – Austin messaged me and my agent told me about Coventry so I wanted to speak to both teams.

“After seeing the facilities, the ground and speaking to the manager here, there was only one choice.

“It was quite quick to be fair. Me and the Mrs came up to Edinburgh a week past Monday, stayed over night and Tuesday had a look around the stadium, so it was done by the Wednesday evening.”

With one cap to his name thus far, Smith is understandably keen to establish himself in Michael O’Neill’s squad with qualification for Russia 2018 still a distinct possibility. In moving to Edinburgh, Smith is perfectly placed in that it is his national manager’s city of residence. McPhee’s constant presence, and coach Jimmy Nicholl spending a fair amount of time in country, won’t hurt either.

“It’s up to me,” said the Monkstown native of his continued international involvement. “That’s why I’ve come up here. I can get a bit more coverage in front of the manager and obviously Austin’s here. If I do well, I can push myself back in to that squad.

“I did know [of O’Neill and Nicholl’s proximity]. If they come and watch a few games it’ll be nice.”

A more immediate appearance at Windsor Park is on the cards first, with Hearts taking on Linfield in Belfast tomorrow afternoon to conclude their week across the water.

“It’d be nice,” said Smith of a potential run out. “It’ll be a tough game because they’ve been training and had their European games. It’ll be a good game for us to get some fitness out of it. A few of the boys haven’t played a game yet so we’re looking to get back in to the competitive spirit of things really.”