Liam Smith feels the wrench of leaving Hearts is already justified as he sits proudly top of the Ladbrokes Championship with Ayr United.
The defender is on Scotland Under-21 duty this week knowing his club and international prowess could have suffered had he stayed at Tynecastle Park in a bit-part role.
Smith, 22, opted to end an eight-year association with Hearts in August to sign a one-year contract at Ayr. He established himself quickly as Ian McCall’s side surged to the top of the table and is eager to continue prospering at international level.
Scotland could reach the European Under-21 Championship finals if they beat Ukraine in Kiev on Friday and England at Tynecastle on Tuesday. Smith is thriving on the intensity of regular competitive games after finding himself out of the picture at Hearts.
He pinpointed last season’s loan spell at St Mirren, during which he won the Championship title, as the period he realised regular game time was essential for his career.
“After playing every week for St Mirren – at a level where you were expected to win – I knew I had to go and do that again this season,” he explained. “I couldn’t go back to playing here and there. So far, I think my decision has been vindicated.
“I’m playing in a team that is pushing for a good position in the league. There is that bit of expectation where you’re going into games and the fans expect you to do something. I think that’s important. You see how well Hearts are doing at the moment. It would have been hard for me to get into that team. So I think my decision to leave has been justified already.
“The enjoyment side is important, and the fact I’m playing every week. I wanted to improve myself last year and I hoped those improvements would take me into the Hearts first team. That didn’t happen but I’ve gone to a team who play similar to how St Mirren played last year. With the confidence that has taken us to the top of the league, it’s a big positive for me and the club.”
Smith credits Robbie Neilson with a key role in his development at Hearts. Dundee United’s newly-appointed head coach gave the player a sustained first-team run and European experience two years ago whilst in charge at Tynecastle.
“He gave me my opportunity and, after a couple of loans, I had a good run in the side. I owe a lot to him from my time at Hearts. He also taught me lot about being a full-back, a more defensive full-back. A lot of credit goes to him for helping me to improve.” The two now compete against each other, with Neilson’s task being to get United promoted. “He has been a player at Dundee United. The way he works on a day-to-day basis, he is professional and he’ll have every little detail covered,” said Smith.
“I’d expect him to go in there and turn it around. The league table could be totally different come the end of the season. I think Robbie going in there could send them upwards.”
Smith knows about upward trajectories. As well as Ayr’s table-topping feats, he is part of a Scotland Under-21 squad close to making history under coach Scot Gemmill. Not since 1996 have Scotland reached a European Under-21 Championship. Sitting third in Group 4, two wins in the next week could end that 22-year absence.
“The last two games gave us a huge confidence boost,” said Smith of wins at home to Andorra and away to the Netherlands. “We are going into these two games this week still with a chance of qualifying.
“To go away to Holland and win the way we did, we now know we could do that to any team. We’re going into these games with confidence and we know what we need to do. Scot is thorough when it comes to preparation. We’ll have a game plan and implement it, like we did in Holland.”