Liam Smith has urged frustrated Hearts fans to rally round Jack Hamilton rather than publicly criticise him.
The right-back was disappointed to see the 23-year-old goalkeeper singled out and booed by a significant section of the home support after he spilled Graeme Shinnie’s long-range strike into the path of Adam Rooney, who duly fired Aberdeen on their way to a 2-1 win at Tynecastle on Sunday.
While Hamilton has retained the faith of both Hearts and Scotland management throughout his first season as a senior No.1, some supporters have been unwilling to tolerate the inevitable moments of difficulty that materialise when a young and inexperienced goalkeeper is first thrust into a high-intensity environment over a sustained period.
Smith is adamant his fellow academy graduate will develop into a top-class goalkeeper and has called on his critics to cut him some slack as he continues learning his trade in a team struggling for form and confidence. “It’s difficult to see what happened to Jack because I’ve come through the ranks with him and I know how talented a goalkeeper he is,” Smith said.
“When you’re young, you need people to get behind you. I think you build up a thick skin as you go through your career but you maybe don’t have that at the start, so to hear one of your mates and someone you know is trying their best, getting booed is disappointing. You can be frustrated, but to then take that out on an individual is taking it a step further. Fair enough, take it out on the team, but I don’t think it helps taking it out on individuals.
“It’s only Jack’s first season as No.1 so he needs time. He’s such a talented goalkeeper. He pulls off some great saves. Even the offside one he pulled off against Aberdeen was a great save, but no-one will talk about that. I’ve got no doubt that Jack will be No.1 here for years to come. He’s only 22 and he’s in the Scotland set-up. That speaks for itself. As a young goalkeeper, he’s still learning. Everyone needs to get behind him.”
Smith may be one of the youngest, least-experienced players in Hearts’ first-team squad having just turned 21, but he is also one of the most eloquent when it comes to assessing what has been a difficult season.
The widespread exasperation among the fanbase over a campaign that has unravelled badly in recent months manifested itself on Sunday as the last game in front of the 103-year-old main stand was played out amid an, at times, rancorous atmosphere. The players and management were booed off at the end of the defeat by Aberdeen and were then deserted by their supporters, with no more than 1000 remaining in the stadium to see the squad re-emerge from the tunnel for the traditional farewell at the end of their final home game of the campaign.
“The fans have had frustrating times over the season and it’s not been as successful as we’d have hoped so I can understand why they wouldn’t want to hang around,” said Smith, who, it must be noted, hasn’t been a regular during Hearts’ slump but has been one of their most committed performers whenever called upon.
“We’ve just got to hope they continue to come back next season and give us the support that the club is famous for.
“With Sunday being such a special day in the club’s history, we wanted to end it on a high, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. I think there seems to be a build-up of tension around the place, which is understandable. I sympathise with the fans because they’re giving us their support and we’ve not repaid that with the results they want. We’ve got to try and do things to get them onside.”
Smith came on as a half-time replacement for Andraz Struna against Aberdeen and did more than most to get them onside by setting up Esmael Goncalves’ equaliser and generally delivering a wholehearted performance. The young right-back has swiftly discovered in his fledgling career that flourishing within the tight confines of Tynecastle can be mentally tough when there is discontent and anxiety emanating, almost subconsciously, from a disenchanted support.
He acknowledges that the intensity of the Hearts fans has probably come as a shock to some of his recently-recruited colleagues, who are evidently in need of time to adapt to the unique demands of Scottish football. The only way through it, according to the 21-year-old, is to try and use the noise – positive or negative – as a galvanising force. “Playing at Tynecastle when things aren’t going well builds you a thick skin,” he said. “The fans expect, and understandably so, because it’s a massive club and we should be winning most games at Tynecastle.
“For anybody who plays for Hearts, it’s a passionate crowd and the stadium’s full every week. It’s not like other clubs, where you might play in front of a lot less people in a half-empty stadium, but this is the type of place you want to play. It’s something as a professional you’ve got to cope with and use to your advantage.
“It could be a different experience to what a lot of the new guys are used to, but you’ve just got to try and use the noise in the stadium in a positive way and use it to motivate you. It builds your character, and it can only stand me in good stead for the rest of my career.”
As a player who has been involved with Hearts for several years, Smith is well aware that wholehearted commitment is a basic requirement for anyone wearing maroon. He certainly wasn’t found wanting in that department when he entered a 50/50 tackle with Mark Reynolds as the two players raced towards a loose ball in the Aberdeen half. Smith went in full pelt, got to the ball first and won his team a free-kick as the Dons defender sent him spinning up in the air before landing awkwardly, in similar fashion to Rangers defender Kenny Miller in the Old Firm derby a week earlier. Smith insists he will never shirk challenges such as this, as he believes this type of desire and passion is crucial to ensuring Hearts regain their edge.
“I don’t know where I ended up after that,” he said. “I think I did about four somersaults. To me, that’s just the way your mentality’s got to be. You’ve got to fight for everything, especially in Scotland and at a club like Hearts. You’ve got to get the crowd onside by doing the things they want to see. You’ve got to throw yourself into tackles, show a bit of passion and show that it means something to you.”