Hearts are a different club now to the one Michael Smith joined just eight months ago.
The Northern Ireland full-back left Peterborough United for Tynecastle last summer on the advice of Austin MacPhee, the Hearts assistant coach. MacPhee told him qualifying for Europe was a strong possibility, but he arrived to chaos. The Edinburgh club stumbled out of the Betfred League Cup at the group stage and head coach Ian Cathro was sacked, all within eight weeks of Smith signing.
Craig Levein’s galvanising powers have brought a place in the Europa League qualifying rounds back into focus. Hearts continue their quest for a top-four finish in the Ladbrokes Premiership against Ross County in Dingwall today after reaching the Scottish Cup quarter-finals last weekend.
The progress has Smith contemplating a potential European debut. His career so far has been spent in Northern Ireland and the lower leagues in England.
“It would be fantastic to get nights like that back at Tynecastle. I would never have dreamed of it before,” he said. “Things like that attracted me to come here. Speaking to Austin last summer, he said we had a great chance and I think we really do.
“It’s a massive club and we all want the same thing – to push up the table a bit more and do something with this season.”
Pleased to be part of a more stable set-up, the defender admitted the League Cup debacle against Dunfermline last July left him wondering what he had signed up for.
“I did say I wasn’t really expecting that. I didn’t really know what went on at the end of last season,” said Smith. “What’s done is done. Since the gaffer came in he’s been brilliant. I think a few people were humming and hawing about the appointment but they’re eating their words now.
“We are lot more stable, there is a lot more friendliness and happiness about the club. That’s to do with things on the pitch. We’re performing, the fans appreciate it and they’re turning out in their numbers to support us.”
Levein has overseen a new clean sheet record during a run of just one defeat in the last 15 games.
“He’s very good tactically. He knows how he wants to beat teams and it’s coming to fruition now,” explained Smith. “We are beating teams the way he wants. We don’t just set up one way, we chop and change formations and players to see if we can actually win the game. It’s working. It’s good to have a manager like that, who isn’t just stuck with the same 11 each week.
“Him and Austin must do a lot behind the scenes and it’s definitely working. As players, we don’t see that sort of thing. They show us what to do on a Thursday or Friday and it’s working.”
The manager is also carefully goading a few opponents through the media, which Smith believes is nothing more than light-hearted entertainment.
“He’s experienced enough and I think he’s trying to wind a few people up in the press at the minute,” smirked the Northern Irishman. “He’s one of the good guys and everyone appreciates it. It’s a bit of fun. You can’t be too serious all the time. He’s just having a bit of fun with it. If people take it out of context that’s their fault but I think it’s brilliant.
“He’s got your back as a player, it’s his club and he wants us to do well. That’s the reason he’s doing it.”
Do the players similarly poke fun at Levein? “Not as much,” smiled Smith.
The 29-year-old recently returned to Hearts’ starting line-up after losing his right-back slot to Liverpool loanee Connor Randall. “I am pleased and I just want to be keep my place,” he said
“It is nice to be back playing. It is easy to step back into a team that has lost just once in their last 15 matches. Morale is really high and it would have been harder to come into team that wasn’t winning. I just come in and do my job and if I am good enough I will play.
“I have been on the bench the last few weeks because Connor has been fantastic. I haven’t got a grudge towards him as he is a great lad and we get on well. If I come in and do well he will be happy for me and that is the sort of team spirit that we have here at this club and it is great to be a part of. We just want what is good for the club.
“It is like a different club [compared to the one he joined] and we are on a great run at the minute. We are in the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup and things are going well. We just need to keep focused.
“I want to be up there challenging in the top three or four in the league and getting to cup finals. Hopefully we can still achieve that. If we keep this run going and some teams above us drop points here and there then we have every chance.”
Ross County won for the first time in 14 games last week with a 4-1 victory at Dundee. “This will be tough and one of the hardest games we have had recently,” said Smith. “They are scrapping for their lives and their manager will have them up for it. We have to go there and do a professional job.”