Liam Smith received multiple offers to leave Hearts on loan during the January transfer window. They were all rejected, allowing him to step into the first team as Callum Paterson’s deputy.
The 19-year-old started his first league match for Hearts in Tuesday’s 2-0 win over Inverness and delivered a thoroughly assured display.
Had he been loaned to one of the several Scottish Championship clubs coveting him, he wouldn’t have been around to enjoy such a rewarding experience. Paterson’s shoulder injury leaves a void at right-back and Smith, captain of Hearts Under-20s, was chosen ahead of Jordan McGhee and John Souttar for the position. He is now focused on staying there.
Paterson will miss four to five weeks and the young pretender is craving a run in the team. Tuesday’s impressive performance will only have enhanced Smith’s prospects. He defended diligently, passed the ball with purpose and even got forward for a shot at goal. In short, he confirmed he is yet another Riccarton academy graduate with real potential.
Smith hopes to keep his place tomorrow against Partick Thistle and augment his first-team knowledge. Yet he is fully aware he could be playing lower-league football right now and looking on enviously at a missed opportunity. “It looked like I was going to go out on loan but it didn’t happen. The gaffer said he was looking to give me some more game time. I’ve come off the bench a couple of times so to start now is great experience,” said the defender, speaking exclusively to the Evening News.
“I could’ve stayed here and Callum might have stayed fit for the rest of the season and I wouldn’t have had my chance. As it happens, I’ve got my opportunity and I hope I’ve taken it. I really enjoyed it. You don’t know how long Callum will be out for. If I’ve done well on Tuesday, then you never know for Saturday. I could keep my place.
“The day before a game, we go over the video of the opposition in the first-team dressing room. First of all, the gaffer announces the team. When it went up on the board, that’s when I found out I was playing. It was a night game so I had all day to mull it over. I had that feeling in my stomach, but it was a good nervousness. I wasn’t anxious or anything. I was just happy to be in the team and get out and play because Tynecastle is a great place to play.
“It was the biggest crowd I’d played in front of. It’s not daunting, it’s exciting to come and play in front of a crowd as big as that. Once you get out there, you can try to block it out but when they start clapping and cheering it gives you a boost that you don’t get playing in lower leagues or under-20s.”
Smith has played enough youth and lower division matches to know. He spent most of last season on loan at Gary Naysmith’s East Fife, whilst this year he has flitted between the under-20s and first team at Hearts. Tuesday proved he is ready to step up permanently.
“I’m just doing as well as I can in the under-20s,” he added. “The gaffer chose to go with me on Tuesday night instead of Jordan or John. That’s pleasing for me. I’ve been waiting for my chance and hopefully I’ve taken it. It would be great to keep my place because any game is a bonus for me. Starting is great and I would love to continue that. I like to go forward, although it’s not very often I have a shot like I did on Tuesday,” he smirked. “I like to get up the pitch as much as I can but, defensively, you need to be a bit more switched on playing with the first team. The other defenders talk to you all the time. They’re obviously top players so they do things right, they pass the ball properly, and there’s always an option for a pass when you have possession. Playing in such a good side helps a lot.”
Robbie Neilson, the Hearts head coach, likes Smith’s composure and will have no concerns keeping him in the team. “I knew what I was going to get from Liam on Tuesday,” he said. “He’s been unfortunate that he’s had Callum in front of him at right-back, who’s been a key player for us for the last couple of seasons. He’s a big player and he’s round about the international scene, so Liam has had to be patient.
“We’ve had a lot of clubs wanting to take Liam on loan to the Championship. We decided to keep him because, if Paterson is out, he’s a ready-made replacement. I think he showed that on Tuesday night. He’s an eight-out-of-ten every week, whether he’s playing in the first team or the under-20s. He’s just steady and he makes good decisions. He just needs to get used to the physicality of it, the pace and the fitness levels that are required.
“He’s a steady player who always does well. He does the right things all the time in training and makes the right decisions. He just needs to keep that consistency up. You can do it in the under-20s and when you come into the first team your first little spell is always good. It’s keeping that consistency. I thought he was excellent on Tuesday.”
Watching Paterson cement himself as an automatic choice at right-back over the last three years has helped Smith’s development. “He’s obviously a top player,” said Smith. “He’s a Scotland Under-21 player and he’s been with the full international squad. From training and playing with him every day, as well as watching what he does on a Saturday, you learn a lot. We look at video analysis and we get to see what he’s doing.
“I watch the Champions League and players like Philipp Lahm. They’re the top players so you’re always watching them and the guys in the English Premier League. You see full-backs playing at the top level and try to emulate what they’re doing.”
Other youngsters are also pressing to break into the Hearts first team right now, the most notable of late being Canadian Dario Zanatta. “Dario has come in and done really well. Robbie [Buchanan] and Angus [Beith] have been on the bench in the last few weeks. Although the gaffer has brought players in, there is always going to be an opportunity for younger players,” said Smith.
“You look at the team and Walker, Callum, Sam, Jordan, they’ve all come through the academy and been given the chance to play. It’s an exciting time at the club. We’ve got a bit of a gap now in the league so the gaffer can trust some of the younger boys to come in and do a job. Earlier in the season, it’s more cagey and the games are tighter.”