Exclusive: Michael Smith admits Hearts mystery ahead of RFS tie and discusses his Northern Ireland future

Fluctuating recent Hearts performances leave many observers mystified. Results need to improve after three wins in 15 games and Saturday offered a hint of salvation against Celtic.

A more assertive, aggressive display was more like the Hearts fans know and love. Celtic’s 4-3 victory ultimately left the Edinburgh club with nothing but a few pats on the back. It would seem vital that they harness the energy and desire for Thursday’s Europa Conference League tie against RFS.

“I think we showed a bit of fight, a bit of bravery, but that should be standard for us,” says defender Michael Smith. “We still lost the game. You can take little bits of belief from it but we are disappointed we didn’t take any points. It’s just the way things are happening for us just now. We’ve conceded a free header in the box, little deflections fell to them, it’s all coming thick and fast. We have to stick together and we will definitely get out of this rut.

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“Against Celtic, you have to take care of the midfield. I thought the three boys in there [Cammy Devlin, Orestis Kiomoirtzoglou and Robert Snodgrass] were really good in the first half. The two wide men helped cover pockets of space to stop Reo Hatate getting on the ball. In the second half, I thought we stopped doing that and lost a little bit of energy from the first half. They found space and managed to dominate more. For most of the game, the shape was spot on and the boys worked their socks off.”

The Latvian champions lost 2-0 at home to Hearts six weeks ago, so the forthcoming European tie is an opportunity for the Tynecastle side get out of that ‘rut’. “We will be looking to do that but it’s not going to be an easy game,” explains Smith. “We beat them over in Latvia but they have shown they can get results against good teams. At Tynecastle, if we show the same energy, desire and bravery we showed against Celtic, I think we can come away with a result.”

Those commodities are what Hearts supporters appreciate more than most. “To be honest, it’s a mystery why that comes out of our game sometimes,” admits Smith. “That should be a given for any team – coming out and going after opponents, being brave, trying to get on the ball. Sometimes, with a little lack of confidence, it does drop away and you start to lose that. On Saturday, I thought we got it back. We were really up for the game. We are conceding silly goals but we are where we are and we need to start picking up points.”

Despite tightness in his hamstring, the 34-year-old expects to play against RFS. “I feel fine. Me and Gino [Josh Ginnelly] just had a bit of cramp near the end because we both haven’t trained a lot over the last few weeks. Nothing too much. I’ll train right up until Thursday and be ready to go again.”

Ian Baraclough’s departure as Northern Ireland coach means Smith’s country will soon have a new man in charge. Baraclough stated last year that the defender did not want to be considered for international duty at that time. Will that change? “No change at the minute,” says Smith. “I’m not sure who the new manager will be so we will just have to see. Personally, at the minute, there will be no change.”

Michael Smith expects to be fit for Hearts' European tie against RFS on Thursday.