Borough Briggs provides an especially modest start to Ashley Smith-Brown’s Hearts career tonight. When you’ve trained with superstars like Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure and Raheem Sterling, not much can compare.
The home of Elgin City is the most northerly league ground in Great Britain. Its only stand contains 478 second-hand seats donated from Newcastle United’s St James’ Park 17 years ago. It is, in every sense, a lower-league venue.
Smith-Brown is determined that the surroundings can be no excuse in Moray this evening when Hearts begin their Betfred League Cup campaign. The on-loan Manchester City defender might be used to the plush Etihad training campus and mingling with world football’s elite, but he heads north with the utmost professionalism.
“I’ve not heard too much about Elgin so far from the boys,” smiled the 21-year-old, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “I know they’re a fourth division team but, regardless, it’s a competitive game. It’s a cup game and anything can happen in the cup so we’ve just got to be on it from minute one.
“We’ve got to be professional. You can’t really take much notice of the ground or the atmosphere. You can’t have any excuses going into this game.
“We’re all in good spirits. We all feel fit and sharp, we’re ready for the season to start and we’re looking forward to this.
“This will be my first competitive game for Hearts so I want to make a good impression and start well. Hopefully, I will do my best for the team.”
Elgin’s diligent squad are unlikely to faze Smith-Brown too much. He helped NAC Breda gain promotion in the Netherlands last season and has encountered some of English football’s biggest talents at City.
“I would say Sterling is the toughest. He’s really quick,” admitted the left-back. “I’ve trained with the likes of Yaya Toure, Aguero, [Vincent] Kompany, Joe Hart. There are loads of great players down there. I managed to train with them a few times. We’re all based in the same building so you see them every day, have lunch with them, it’s a great atmosphere.
“They’re still normal people. They talk to you and give you bits of advice. They’ve got bags of experience so it’s always good to listen to them.”
He will spend the entire season in Edinburgh hoping to augment the experience he gained in Breda. At the back of his mind remains a burning ambition to make an impact at one of the globe’s largest and richest clubs.
“I definitely want to make an impression there,” he continued. “I’m still a Manchester City player at the end of the day. Regardless of how the season goes here, I’ll end up back there next year and we’ll take it from there. Hopefully I can have a good season here and, you never know, I could be in the plans. It’s up to me to do well at whatever level I’m playing and make sure I’m performing as best I can.
“Quite early in the summer I got a call from agent saying there was interest from Hearts. He asked me what I thought. I did a bit of research on the club, looked at the team and how they play. I liked what I saw. I was then invited here in the middle of June and I met Ian Cathro and Craig Levein. They were both saying good things about the club and the fans. They sold it to me, really. It was a no-brainer for me.
“I don’t know who suggested the move first, whether it was Hearts or Man City. I just got the call from my agent about the interest from Hearts and it just went from there.”
He is hoping the experience in Edinburgh is as fulfilling as his year across the North Sea.
“I came here for competitive football. Getting out of the EDS [Elite Development Squad] was a good move for me. I thought I needed to play some competitive football and get some game time.
“Where I was playing in Holland was very demanding and I think the Hearts fans are demanding. The whole club is demanding because they all want to win every week.
“It was beneficial for me to go out on loan to Holland for that reason. I went there to test myself and take on a challenge. It was my first loan, I was moving away from my family so it was a time for me to mature and develop my game. I felt it was a good step for me.”
The gamble certainly paid off and ended successfully with a promotion party which Smith-Brown will take with him to the grave – regardless of what else he might achieve in his career as a footballer.
“We got promoted through the play-off so we went through a difficult stage. It was even harder than winning the league but it made the whole season even more beneficial for me. I’ve taken that experience with me and I want to keep the momentum going.
“The night we got promoted, we went back to the stadium and there were 30,000 people waiting for us. It was brilliant to see that. The next day, we were in the city centre and the whole street was filled. It was something I’ll never forget.
“The whole feeling of getting promoted over there and seeing the fans react like that was amazing.”
Winning a trophy in Scotland would prompt a similar public frenzy from the Hearts faithful. They cherish silverware just as much as powerful left-footed Czechs, diminutive strikers who like to destroy Hibs, and, pertinently, classy left-sided full-backs.
“I’m a very attacking full-back. I like to get on the ball and I’m quite technical,” said Smith-Brown when asked to describe himself. “I like to put myself about a bit as well. I don’t mind a bit of that, I don’t mind a challenge. I’ll just give everything for Hearts every week.”
His start may be in humble surroundings at one of Scotland’s northern outposts, but he has ambitions to grace the highest platform of the game in this country. A positive start in the Betfred League Cup could be the first step.