Hearts contract clause key to Michael Smith's future at Tynecastle
Entering the final year of his existing Hearts contract, defender Michael Smith wants the club to extend his deal and prolong his stay in Edinburgh.
The reliable full-back spoke exclusively to the Evening News to discuss his future at Tynecastle Park with his current agreement due to expire in summer 2022.
Smith’s immediate focus is on Saturday's cinch Premiership trip to St Mirren as Hearts aim to maintain a 100 per cent record at the start of the new campaign.
Glancing further ahead, the Northern Irishman is eager to stay on in Scotland with his wife and family settled in the capital city.
His contract includes a clause allowing a 12-month extension until summer 2023 provided he plays a set number of first-team matches this season.
As a first-pick under manager Robbie Neilson when fit, Smith is hopeful that clause will be activated in a move which would please the Hearts support.
“I’m settled here and my son starts school in August. There is another year’s option on my contract and I’m happy here. I hope the gaffer is happy with me so we will see what happens,” he said.
“Everyone knows I want to be here. I've been at Hearts for as long as I can remember now and it’s a great club. The fanbase is huge, Edinburgh is a great city and my family are all settled here.
“For me, there is no reason to go anywhere else. Basically, if I do well enough to play enough games this season then I think we can extend the contract.”
New role this season
Smith is now in his fifth year with Hearts since arriving from Peterborough United and is popular with fans as a player who regularly performs to a high standard.
Versatility remains one of his greatest strengths, for he is equally effective at full-back, in central defence or in midfield. He has been operating at wing-back this term since Neilson changed formation.
The manager normally favours a back four but since switching to a three-man defence in April for the final five games of last season, Hearts have not lost in ten competitive matches.
One of the features of the 3-4-3 system is Smith stepping from right wing-back into midfield to add extra presence when his team have possession of the ball. He turns 33 next month but remains as sprightly and energetic as ever to cope with the transitions.
Defensive shape is drilled regularly on the Riccarton training fields. “I don’t think people can complain about being too defensive,” said Smith. “In the Premiership, sometimes you will be without the ball for long periods so you need to be tight at the back and stay in shape.
“The boys in the middle help, and we get our shape right from the front three to stop teams getting a foothold in games. We work hard at it on the training ground and we are reaping the rewards.
“I enjoy wing-back. I’m nearly 33 but I’m still as fit as ever, there’s no problem there. I’ve struck up a good partnership with Gino [Josh Ginnelly] ahead of me on the wing.”
The new tactics have also helped Hearts shut teams out. Only one goal has been conceded during this unbeaten sequence, which was scored last weekend by Anthony Ralston as Celtic lost 2-1 in Edinburgh on the Premiership’s opening weekend.
“Towards the end of last season, through the Premier Sports Cup and the start of the league, we’ve looked solid,” acknowledged Smith. “The back three has been pretty settled and we want to keep the momentum going. We built a solid base last year and it helped us win the league. If we keep it tight at the back again, we can have a good season.
“The year we got relegated, we were all over the place. We conceded too many goals so it’s massive to keep it tight at the back. Having Craig Gordon behind us helps a lot. The late save he made against Celtic was world-class so it’s working well at the minute.”
Troubles on the road
The goalkeeper’s expertise certainly underpins much of the meanness at the back. It will likely be needed again in Paisley this weekend, for Hearts have won only twice in 11 visits to St Mirren since their current stadium opened in 2009.
The Edinburgh club’s last appearance there in March 2020 ended in a 1-0 defeat which left them bottom of the Premiership under former manager Daniel Stendel. They were later relegated controversially after a vote by SPFL clubs when the Covid 19 pandemic hit.
“We can’t bring that into consideration. We know how St Mirren play and it will be a completely different game to Celtic,” stressed Smith, one of the players involved in that fateful night almost 17 months ago.
Results at places like Paisley, Hamilton and Perth have undermined Hearts’ efforts for years and caused many to bemoan the team’s troubles away from Tynecastle. It is a situation the current squad are working to eradicate.
“We’re trying to drum it into the new boys that these are the games you need to win if you are going to get anywhere this season,” explained Smith. “Games against Celtic and Rangers, I wouldn’t say it’s a free hit, but you aren’t expected to get anything.
“If you do get something out of those games it’s a huge bonus. It’s these other games that can trip you up or make or break your season, definitely.”