Liam Smith will step into Callum Paterson’s right-back spot if and when Hearts sell their in-demand defender.
Head coach Robbie Neilson expects Paterson to stay beyond the transfer window after the Tynecastle club rejected a second offer from Wigan Athletic, but 20-year-old Smith has been primed just in case.
He is seen as the natural successor to Paterson and is already an established member of Hearts’ first-team squad with 18 senior appearances.
Wigan offered a marginally improved offer for Paterson on Wednesday, but Hearts dismissed the bid and are happy to keep Paterson until his contract expires at the end of the season. They want at least £1million to sell this month, which Wigan are unlikely to pay.
Smith is on standby in case a quick-fire deal is agreed. Regardless of when Paterson leaves, Neilson will promote him as the next right-back in line.
“Liam has done really well and our idea is to progress him over the next season or two,” Neilson told the Evening News. “He came in last season and played a few games, then he played in Europe and did well. He’s out of the team at the moment but the idea is to try to build him back in again. Whether Callum stays or goes, Liam will get progression this season.
“The players all know the situation. They all read the papers and see the media, so they know things could change in the next week or two. We want to progress players so it’s important we have the next one ready. He’s the next one ready to come in. You hope that in two or three years’ time, the next one will come through again. It’s the same in every position.
“We have young Daniel Baur coming through at centre-half, Aaron Reid coming through at left-back, Petkov and Beith coming through in midfield. It’s important you take your chance when it comes.
“Over the last year, Liam has progressed a lot. He’s now pretty established in the first-team squad. When the younger ones first come in, they aren’t at the same level as the first-team players when they train. Liam is established in there now so I would have no fear about putting him in.
“That’s the whole idea here. We would need to bring another one in if Callum goes, in terms of boosting numbers, but Liam did very well in the games he has played. He did really well in the Europa League and came on at Pittodrie and was excellent at left-back. I would have no qualms at all about giving the next young player his chance if Callum was to leave.”
Neilson added that Wigan must increase their bid significantly before Hearts will consider selling Paterson, although he admitted the Scotland internationalist is ready for English football.
“He’s ready to go down, he is. Physically he is ready, he is mentally ready, he has got the experience. We always talk about players playing 50, 60, 100 games. Callum has played 150 now so he has that experience.
“Two bids have come in but both of them have been miles away from our valuation. Until a bid comes in that matches our valuation then Callum will be remaining with us. I’ve spoken to him and he understands the situation.
“We have set a price which we believe is more than fair - not too much for a current Scotland international with a huge career ahead of him - but as it has been in the past, English clubs think they can come up here and offer lower sums than they should be expected to pay.
“Wigan would need to substantially put their offer up, then we would have a look at it. That is part of football and Callum understands that. We just have to deal with whatever comes.”
Spanish striker Juanma Delgado and Nigerian defender Juwon Oshaniwa will leave if Hearts receive suitable offers, but Neilson has no problem with keeping either player on.
“Juanma went over to Belgium [last week] and couldn’t agree terms and decided to come back. The option is still open to him if he want to go and find somewhere, if he doesn’t he’ll come back and back into the squad. There is a way back for him, he’s got a contract and he is part of the club.
“Juwon wants to play first-team football. I’ve spoken to him and the option is there if he wants to stay or go. It depends on the player and what the offer is so I’m not going to say yes or no to whether we’d let them leave for free. There are a lot of ifs and buts.”