Hearts' Michael Smith eager to keep starting berth and realise cup final dream
Michael Smith has gone 14 years as a footballer without tasting the experience of walking out at a major cup final - and knows his wait will continue if his Hearts performances slip over the next five weeks.
The Northern Irishman is gearing up for his first showpiece occasion against Celtic next month after helping Craig Levein's Jambos ease past Inverness to reach the climax to the William Hill Scottish Cup.
But with team-mates Jamie Brandon and Marcus Godinho challenging him for the right-back slot in Levein's line-up, the 30-year-old knows he cannot afford to waste any of his focus daydreaming about what will come at Hampden on May 25.
"It's brilliant," said the former Bristol Rovers and Peterborough defender ahead of Hearts' opening post-split Ladbrokes Premiership clash with Rangers on Saturday."This will be my first final as a pro and I'm delighted to get there.
"Down south I think the furthest I ever got was the fourth round of the FA Cup. That was about it. But I'm determined to saviour the chance coming up. I'm buzzing for it."The boys will all be the same and hopefully we can come away with a winner's medal.
"I'm hoping to get my family over for the game - I don't think I'll invite too many friends because I don't think I'll be able to afford to buy them all tickets.
"It should be a great day and to have my son and wife there would be brilliant. But I think we have to now put the cup final to the back of our minds.
"The next five league games coming up are massive and are against big teams.
"There is always competition in the squad and that'll stay the same now we're in the final.
"Going for the right-back slot, there is me, Jamie and Marcus. We have a bit of friendly banter about it but the gaffer has shown faith in me by putting me straight back in after my injury."
Defeat to city rivals Hibernian a fortnight ago left Hearts in sixth place, eight points behind a possible European slot.
If that gap proves to be insurmountable, the only way the Gorgie side will be able to book a Europa League slot will be to halt the Hoops' triple treble push at Hampden.
Smith said: "We're a good few points away from that fourth spot but stranger things have happened and it's up to the boys to stay in the team and play well if they want to play in that cup final.
"Playing in Europe will definitely be in the players' minds.
"European football is what I came here for, the chance to play in big games. That's our aim and if we don't get into fourth spot, then we have to win the cup."
Steven Davis has endured a tough return to Ibrox since joining on loan from Southampton in January but his Northern Ireland colleague knows he will be up against a top operator when Gers visit Tynecastle this weekend.
He said: "I haven't experienced the Premier League but I'm sure it's different to the league up here and it's taken Steven a little while to adapt again.
"But in every game I've seen him play recently, he's been fantastic. He's a brilliant player and I'm looking forward to coming up against him."