HAVING been told by manager John McGlynn to lift his game, Gordon Smith is now a man on a mission. A mission to prove he can be a regular Hearts goalscorer before his contract expires next June. The striker played for the first time this season as a substitute against Ross County and is now eager to feature in tonight’s League Cup quarter-final with Dundee United.
In an era when Hearts are committed to giving young players a chance at senior level, not to mention struggling for strikers, Smith’s absence has baffled many. He is still only 21 but is now in his fourth season at Tynecastle, with just six starts in total to his name. For most of this campaign, his backside has been stuck firmly to the substitutes’ bench. McGlynn told him that is because he wasn’t producing.
Saturday saw the former Livingston forward thrown into the fray for the final six minutes with Hearts 2-1 down against their Highland visitors. Although Smith wasn’t directly involved in John Sutton’s equaliser, the fact he was on the field at the time can’t have done his case any harm. He certainly looked full of vigour and keen to impress. It’s something he’s been working on in recent weeks after hearing some home truths from his manager.
“I have been frustrated,” said Smith. “It’s only natural to feel like that when you’re not playing but I’m not going to go in a huff about it. I’m a trier so I want to try and change the manager’s mind and get in the team. That’s what I’ve been trying to do every day, I’m just working away and hoping to catch his eye each day in training.
“The manager took me aside and said I hadn’t been doing as well as he thought I could do. We spoke about it and I said that, to gain some confidence again, I could maybe go on loan because there were a few teams in the First Division asking about me.
“I thought that would be an option but the manager said he saw a change in me in training that week.
“I got my head down for a few weeks and gave it my all and I was flying. He said I was doing better and improving so I’ve been on the bench and playing for the under-20s. I’m just waiting for my chance to get a game.
“There isn’t any other way to go about this other than try to impress the manager. I could go up and see him every day for the next two months but I’ll only help myself if I show up well in training.
“If I get my chance then I need to take it. That’s what I’m hoping for. I’m hoping he just gives me that chance from the start to show what I can do. I believe I can do much better. I’ve done well for the under-20s and that’s all I can do, play my part.
“This is the start of my fourth season and it’s been largely frustrating for me. I’ve only started six games. That’s not enough if you want to go on to bigger and better things and earn new contracts.
“My aim is to get a run in the team and the manager knows I want that.
“He knows I’m not happy about not playing but, as I said, I’m not going to fall out with anyone over it. I’ll try my best to get into the side.
“I was glad to get my first run out at the weekend. It’s been a few months since the season started. I had a bit of a setback with the illness (tonsillitis) in pre-season and I missed a couple of weeks, so it was good to get involved. That’s my first appearance so hopefully there’s more.”
Evidence of Smith’s talents are not too difficult to find despite sporadic outings under several Hearts managers. On his first ever start for the club, he dispatched a crisp finish beyond the Hibs goalkeeper Graeme Smith in the New Year Edinburgh derby of 2010. Then came last year’s inspired performance against Tottenham, when only the crossbar denied him a goal at White Hart Lane.
In between, he finished top goalscorer whilst on loan at Stirling Albion. Two goals in recent under-20 matches also helped him regain McGlynn’s faith.
“That’s given me a lot of confidence. You can only get confident when you’re playing games,” continued Smith.
“Now I want to start playing for the first team instead of the under-20s. I’m only a drop of form or a wee niggling injury away from getting a chance. That’s why I’ve got to keep performing in training because I might get thrown in at the deep end sooner rather than later.”
When that time comes, he must be ready to deliver. “Gordon’s been doing better in the under-20 games and that’s what we needed to happen,” explained McGlynn.
“We needed him to do better in training as well. He’s been on the bench most of the time this season and found himself coming on late in the game on Saturday. It’s a step in the right direction for him. He’s got to hang in there and, when he gets an opportunity, take it.”