Hearts discuss Michael Smith's future role - plus news on Beni Baningime
Signing Nathaniel Atkinson provides Hearts with a youthful and dynamic wing-back to patrol their right flank.
One of Australia’s most prospering talents touched down at Edinburgh Airport earlier this week as Tynecastle’s first new recruit of the January transfer window.
Originally from Tasmania, Atkinson is no devil but he certainly intends wreaking havoc across the Scottish Premiership. Proving himself to new manager Robbie Neilson and securing that wide-right slot are his first tasks in Europe.
So where does all of the above leave Michael Smith? The ever-reliable Northern Irishman has been a cornerstone – some might say a lone shining light at times – of Hearts teams in recent years.
He has performed wing-back duties diligently this term after Neilson converted to a 3-4-3 system. At 33, he remains sufficiently fit and robust to thrive in Scotland’s top flight. He is popular with supporters and offers huge experience as an established internationalist.
It is encouraging, therefore, to hear Neilson confirm that Smith’s role will not diminish following Atkinson’s arrival. The Australian is expected to play his way into the starting line-up in time but it need not be a case of one or the other.
Smith’s versatility means he can operate in a variety of positions, something Hearts are already utilising. He is comfortable in central defence, both in a back three and a four, plus he looks equally accomplished in midfield.
A dominant performance and a goal from the middle of the park against Ross County prior to the Premiership’s winter break underlined Smith’s proficiency in that position.
Neilson explained his thinking on the matter. “Firstly I’m delighted to get Nat in,” he told the Evening News. “He's a great age, he has good experience and has played a lot of first-team games. He won the league with Melbourne City last year and he is hungry to do well. That's exactly what we are looking for.
“We needed competition in that area. Michael has done really well for us and he will continue to do well, but he can cover a number of positions. He can play right-back, right wing-back, centre-back or centre midfield. It's important we have guys like that in our squad.
“It's up to Nat to come in and show that he is capable of taking that space. Michael has been very consistent for us in that position. He certainly won't be getting bombed out, not at all.”
Smith's contract expires in May but the deal includes a clause allowing a 12-month extension until summer 2023, provided he plays a set number of first-team matches this season.
Hearts resumed training at Riccarton on Tuesday after players were given time off during the shutdown. It was the first time Atkinson met his new colleagues, save for his Australian Olympic mate Cammy Devlin.
Striker Liam Boyce and midfielder Beni Baningime were among those using the break to rest and recuperate after injury. Boyce’s calf and Baningime’s knee caused some pre-Christmas concern and the Congolese is not guaranteed to be ready for league duty restarting against St Johnstone on Tuesday.
“We have a few wee niggles here and there. The boys are back in and there are one or two wee issues but I'm expecting them all to be ready for next Tuesday,” explained Neilson.
“The only one is Baningime, who potentially might be the following week. It just depends how his knee reacts to training. He is going to step up his running and we will try that to see how it goes. He might need an extra week but the rest of them should be fine.
“The break was an opportunity to give the lads a rest and we decided to take it. Once we get back into the games, they aren't really going to be off until the end of February. There are eight games in about four weeks.
“We decided to give the players some rest before we go into this period so that we are fully ready for it.”
Management intend Hearts’ push for European qualification to intensify through a congested period of games in the next month. A five-point cushion in third place is admirable at this point in the campaign but upcoming fixtures will be pivotal to the final outcome.
It is six years since a team from Gorgie last competed in a European tournament. “For everyone in the league, this is going to be a big period,” said Neilson.
“There are 13 games before the split. Every team will be looking at this as pretty much the final round of games before we go into the split. It's a massive period.
“To have eight games in a relatively short period of time will make it really important. We need to make sure we pick up points regularly.”
It is likely that his squad will be further reinforced before the transfer window closes at the end of the month. A forward is a priority to help ease the burden on Boyce and provide more options in the attacking third.
“You always need to try to make sure you come out of the transfer window stronger than when you went into it. You also need numbers at the same time,” acknowledged Neilson. “If anybody is leaving Hearts then there will be people coming in to replace them because we do need numbers.
“As we have all seen over the last couple of months with a number of different teams, you get a Covid outbreak in your squad and you can be struggling to put a team together. That means we need to carry a decent-sized squad going into the run-in.”