Cup brings Hearts good vibrations says Michael Smith
Last season Hearts started like a runaway train and then went off the rails in spectacular fashion.
Michael Smith is confident it will prove to be other way around this term, with a poor opening to the campaign giving way to a sustained run of improved form.
While nobody at Tynecastle is getting carried away by Sunday’s victory over Hibs, players and management alike are hopeful that the Edinburgh triumph signals a turning point ahead of this evening’s Betfred Cup quarter-final against Aberdeen at Tynecastle.
“We learned last season how quickly a season can change, so hopefully that win can change our fortunes and we’ll go forward,” said defender Smith. “At the same time, we won’t get over-excited about it. We’ve got a massive cup game now and, if we get through that, it’s another semi-final. The things are looking a bit brighter.”
While Hearts’ league form has been poor in recent seasons, their cup runs have been more encouraging. Tonight is the fourth quarter-final they will have contested in consecutive tournaments and they will be aiming to reach the semi-final for a third time in succession.
“The cup runs are massive,” said Smith. “We obviously got to the semi-final of this competition and the final of the Scottish Cup last season. We got a taste of it and want to take that a step further and win a trophy.”
Hearts go into this evening’s game against Aberdeen with an improved vibe after Sunday’s derby victory banished, temporarily at least, some of the early-season negativity that has engulfed the club. It also eased the pressure on Craig Levein.
Asked if the manager’s mood had changed since the win over Hibs, Smith said: “No, he’s been the same through the bad run. After the game, he was obviously delighted in the changing room.
“He’s got some record against them as a player and a coach and is always delighted when we beat them.”
Sunday’s victory was secured by a late strike by Aaron Hickey, the burgeoning 17-year-old full-back.
Hearts are eager to secure the teenager on a longer contract and Smith believes that would be a good move by his team-mate as it would allow him to continue playing regularly at a key phase in his development.
“He’s had a great start to his professional career and, credit to him, he has taken it all in his stride,” said Smith. “He is still very shy and quiet around the place – and still does all his little youth team jobs.
“It’s good to see that he’s still grounded and nothing has gone to his head.
“At his age, to be playing first-team football is exactly what he needs – and he needs to keep playing games. My advice to him is to keep the head down, keep playing well and stay at a club where you are going to get games.
“Players like that come around fairly regularly at that age – but, for some, it goes to their heads and they drop out of football straight away. Maybe they go to a big club, get a bit of money and it just doesn’t happen for them.
“I’m sure they’ve all heard it before; be at a club where you’ll get a run of first-team games, improve, get physically stronger and gain the experience, then go and ply your trade somewhere else.”
Smith believes Hickey would do well to follow the lead of Scotland left-backs Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney, who both played regularly in their homeland before landing their big moves to England in their early 20s.
“Those are the sort of boys he needs to look up to,” said the Hearts right-back. “They worked hard, kept their heads down and got a run of games in the first team before getting a move. Things happen from there.”
Smith was pleased to see Uche Ikpeazu, who has had a difficult start to the campaign, make a positive impact in Sunday’s derby by scoring Hearts’ equaliser and then setting up Hickey’s winner.
He is hopeful that the big English striker, who has now scored in his last two games, is now ready to step up and lead the attack in the ongoing absence of Steven Naismith and Conor Washington. “Uche has scored a couple of goals in the last two games and, fair play to him,” said Smith. “He needs to be a big player for us now Naisy is struggling and with Conor out for a few months.
“He can drift in and out of games and is sometimes out of position, so you need to keep on at it, but once he’s on it, he’s on it!
“I don’t go anywhere near him in training in case he elbows me in the face or something. He is a handful and I’m sure defenders absolutely hate playing against him.”
Asked about Ikpeazu’s unconventional step-overs moments before setting up Hickey’s winning goal, Smith laughed: “Don’t even talk about his step-overs! He’s taken pelters for it. No need for it, horrendous step-overs, don’t do it again!”