After offloading their third left-back of the summer yesterday when Juwon Oshaniwa followed Lennard Sowah and Faycal Rherras through the exit door, Hearts are hoping they have found a solution to their problem position.
With the decks now clear in an area of the park which hasn’t been effectively manned since Adam Eckersley was released two years ago, Ashley Smith-Brown, the 21-year-old Manchester City academy graduate, has been earmarked to fill the void and is expected to be confirmed on a season-long loan deal imminently.
The Mancunian will pitch up in Gorgie in buoyant mood after a fruitful maiden season of first-team football during a loan spell in which he started 27 matches for Dutch side NAC Breda as they won promotion to the Eredivisie last term.
“At the start of last season, Ash was probably the first name on our team sheet,” NAC Breda’s English striker, Fisayo Adarabioyo, told the Evening News. “He did really well and was really consistent. A lot of people were actually surprised at just how well he did because obviously it was his first shot at first-team football and he was playing in a new environment. He just kept improving as the season progressed and grew in maturity.
“Towards the end of the season, he had a few small problems with injuries which meant he didn’t play as much, but up until then, he was top class. I think he’ll just improve even more if he’s playing regularly for Hearts.”
Adarabioyo, who has known his fellow Mancunian for a decade since their days together in City’s academy, explained that Hearts will be getting a player of supreme technical quality. “Ash is a great professional, he works hard,” he said. “He’s strong and he gives everything. He likes to get forward a lot but for Ash, defending comes first. He tries to make sure everything is sound defensively first. He’s very good in one v one situations.
“But his main attribute is his technical ability. Technically, he’s one of the best full-backs I’ve seen since I’ve been playing. He’s completely two-footed. I’ve never played with a player who’s so comfortable with both feet. I genuinely couldn’t tell you whether he’s right-footed or left-footed, so that helps him a lot, especially attacking-wise. Although he’s a left-back, he can also play right-back or holding midfield. For me, as a striker, he was really good to play alongside because he could play balls down the line for me or come inside on to his right foot and thread balls through. He’s got a really wide passing range.”
Smith-Brown, who was handed a three-year deal at City last summer, has been unable to make the breakthrough at his parent club thus far, but Adarabioyo is adamant that is only down to the level of competition he faces at one of the biggest clubs in Europe.
“Ash has played for England at nearly every age-group,” he said. “But there are just so many experienced and talented players at Man City that it’s hard for any young player to get a chance in the first team. If Ash was at nearly any other team in England, you’d be looking at him as one of the best young players coming through in the Premier League.
“I don’t know how he sees his future at Man City. Ability is not something he’s lacking – it just depends whether he gets the opportunity at City. Either way, he’ll definitely go on to big things in the future.
“He’s 21 now and this is the time you need to be playing regular football. That’s the reason he came over to Holland last season. Man City and Breda have a link-up and he was one of the first to come here, simply because he knew he had to get out to get first-team football and experience a different country and a different culture. He came here and proved himself, and I think that’s why Hearts are interested in him.
“The Dutch league is very technical, so it suited him here. The Scottish league is more physical but he felt he needed to go and test himself a bit more in terms of his physicality which is why he’s chosen to go to Hearts. It’s another good step for him to test himself.”
Many of Hearts’ new recruits last season were taken aback by the intensity of the crowd at Tynecastle when things weren’t going to plan. Despite Smith-Brown’s relative inexperience at first-team level, Aradabioyo insists his boyhood colleague will be unflustered with the demands of playing for one of the Scottish Premiership’s biggest clubs. “Playing for Breda last season was a massive test in terms of mentality,” he explained. “You’re playing in front of 15,000 fans here who are very, very demanding and Ash coped fine with that. He’s very resilient. He just keeps going, which is something you don’t always see in young players. He gets along with people very well. He’s a really good team player.
“He’s a great lad to have around the place and I’m sure he’ll click with the players and the staff at Hearts.”