Hearts in Spain: Dutch philosophy takes Connor Smith nearer Tynecastle dream

Spanish sunshine makes for a tranquil atmosphere at Hearts’ pre-season training base in the hills above the Costa del Sol. Staying cool is the priority when temperatures are touching 30 degrees.

Players enjoy a relaxed environment with opportunities to wind down outwith demanding double sessions. For Connor Smith, though, there is every reason to keep the intensity high every minute of every day. The young midfielder is in the fight of his life this summer.

Last season’s loan at Queen’s Park proved thoroughly beneficial for all parties as Smith helped the ambitious Glasgow club gain promotion from League One to the Championship. He also earned Scotland Under-21 recognition and thrived amid the Dutch style implemented by director of football Marijn Beuker.

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Now it’s time to test his progress. Still only 20, Smith knows the next few weeks are pivotal as he tries to cement a place in an expanding and strengthening Hearts squad. It could go either way. He might end up being loaned out again for more experience. On the other hand, he could be playing in Europe in a few weeks.

Fellow Riccarton youth graduates Scott McGill and Cammy Logan were left in Edinburgh so Smith knows he must seize the opportunity on this trip.

He talks candidly about the dream of European competition with the club he has represented since the age of eight. He grew up a Cowdenbeath supporter but Hearts are his “big team”. Now he feels ready to get involved on the big stage.

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“My ambitions are very high, I want to play for Hearts every week,” says Smith, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “Everyone else here has the same aim. Hopefully I do well and the gaffer notices it and gives me a few games, then it’s up to me to stay in the team.

“I’m buzzing to be here. Scotty and Cammy are obviously gutted they aren’t here. It’s just football at times. They will maybe need another loan, I’ll maybe need another loan, we are all still young. I feel I’ve done a full season on loan and played every week, now I feel ready to play in the Premiership for Hearts.

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Connor Smith is determined to make the most of Hearts' pre-season camp in Spain.

“This is my club so I would love to stay here and try my hardest to get a game. It will be up to me to keep myself in the team. It would be my own fault if I get in the team and then drop out again.”

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Get it right and there is a chance of realising that European ambition. “It would be one of my dreams. Most of my family are Hearts fans as well so they would all be buzzing for me. I grew up a Cowdenbeath fan and I’ve supported them my whole life, but I’m also a Hearts fan. Cowdenbeath are my wee team, Hearts are my big team.”

It’s important for any emerging youngster at Tynecastle to retain a sense of realism. Dislodging established household names from the starting line-up is an almighty challenge. Even more so when new signings are arriving by the week.

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Two flew into Malaga in the first couple of days of this camp, Jorge Grant and Alex Cochrane. Alan Forrest, Kye Rowles and Lewis Neilson were already signed and several others will follow.

“We need a big squad for Europe this year and you need to thrive off that,” says Smith. “When new players come in, you need to know that you have to be better than them. They are the same. They know they need to be better than who is already here. That’s the pressure you need to deal with. It pushes you on and helps you develop.

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“Hopefully I play in the majority of pre-season games and do well. Come the first game of the season, that will take care of itself depending who has or hasn’t done well in pre-season. I just want to get a chance to show I can play.”

Thursday’s friendly against Europa FC of Gibraltar is the first chance for Smith to prove he is a more developed player following a year at Queen’s Park. He managed 38 appearances, scoring five goals and four assists as the transformation of Queen’s continued.

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Beuker, a graduate of the Johan Cruyff University and former sporting director at AZ Alkmaar, has installed a Dutch philosophy and appointed Owen Coyle manager. The club have their own training ground and are redeveloping Lesser Hampden. It was an ideal environment for Smith to prosper.

“I’d been on loan at Cowdenbeath, which was only six months but was good. Then I went to Cove Rangers and Arbroath, which didn’t really work out as well as I’d hoped. Queen’s Park was full-time, I was training with the players and playing every week.

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“I enjoyed my football there. Lawrie Ellis was the manager but when he left, Marijn came in from the Netherlands and changed the way we played. It was like proper football and it really suited me. Then Owen Coyle came in – a great manager whose training was brilliant – and they got promoted.

“Queen’s Park is a massive club, I don’t think people realise how big. I think they are hoping Lesser Hampden will be ready later this year or next year. We used the big gym at Hampden but the training pitches are out in Pollok. They’ve got grass and astro pitches, table tennis, etc. It was much more than I expected at a League One team.”

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He filled an attacking midfield role for Queen’s Park and has his own view on what suits him best. “I’ve been a centre midfielder, like a No.8, my whole career,” he says. “That’s where I would like to play but I would play anywhere for Hearts.

“I played left wing and No.10 at Queen’s Park last season so I can play in those positions as well. In my opinion, my best place is centre mid.”

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