Not many Scotland Under-21 internationalists with European experience sign for Ayr United. Liam Smith, though, left Hearts for Somerset Park with a spring in his step last week.
The chance of regular football in a league he won on loan at St Mirren last season was pivotal for a defender driven by game time. Leaving Riccarton was a wrench but, after Hearts manager Craig Levein told Smith he would rarely play this season, it was time to sever ties with the club he joined aged 14.
A one-year contract gives 22-year-old Smith the chance to develop further under Ayr manager Ian McCall in a division he knows intimately. His arrival is also a coup for a humble Championship club who cannot offer the plush surroundings of an Oriam training complex or Tynecastle Park.
Quite frankly, Smith couldn’t care less. He still lives in the same Braehead flat he occupied during his St Mirren loan and commutes every day to his new place of work in Ayrshire. Training is on a local astroturf pitch near Somerset.
All of this is in stark contrast to Europa League qualifiers in Estonia and Malta with Hearts, but Smith accepts his time in Gorgie was over. “I went in and spoke to Craig Levein and we had an honest conversation. He said I wasn’t going to play a lot of games so I could then go and sort out my future,” he told the Evening News.
“I had a year left on my contract but Hearts weren’t awkward with me. They let me leave quite easily so I have no complaints.
“Things were up in the air over the summer and I had options. I think I probably could have signed with St Mirren while Jack Ross was still there, but Hearts wanted me to come back in for pre-season. That was fair enough, I was contracted to them but obviously it didn’t work out. I’m happy to have something sorted now and I can concentrate on playing again.
“After last year, the main thing was to keep playing. I would have loved that to be at Hearts but it wasn’t to be. The timing of it slightly restricted my options because most teams had their squads together. I’m delighted Ayr took me in and they are doing well at the moment. Hopefully I can get add to that.”
Seemed seemed to be perenially waiting to step into Callum Paterson’s berth as Hearts permanent right-back, but the chance did not come. Smith was loaned to St Mirren last summer after Paterson left Tynecastle for Cardiff City. He made the most of the move, playing 34 times and earning a Championship winner’s medal.
“These things happen in football, you can never count on anyone else,” he said of waiting for the chance at Hearts. “Managers move on and situations change and I think that happened. I did what I was asked last year by going on loan. I don’t think I could have had a better loan spell and I felt I came back to Hearts a better player.
“The opportunity wasn’t there for me and I had to move on. I had to find somewhere I was going to play and try to make a good career for myself from there.”
He joins an Ayr team high on confidence. They have not lost a goal in seven matches and sent Premiership Dundee spinning out of the Betfred Cup on Saturday.
“They’re flying right now. I was on the bench at the weekend and watched them put three past Dundee at Dens Park. I know myself that’s not an easy place to go. With a team that doesn’t concede goals and is winning games, you aren’t just going to walk in.
“I’ve got confidence in myself. I think I’ve got enough to show in training to hopefully get myself in over the next couple of weeks. Hopefully I can add to a winning team.”
Beyond that, the hope is that he could eventually step up a level again in future. “I know the league and I know what it takes to do well in it. I want to continue where I left off at St Mirren last year.
“I’ve got to respect Ayr and give my all this season for them. The main thing was for me to get out and get playing. If I have a season like I did last year then hopefully I catch a few eyes and I can assess my options later in the season. For now, I need to concentrate on getting into the team and then performing consistently.”
Staying in the Scotland Under-21 squad was crucial to Smith. He was yesterday named in the group to face Andorra and Netherlands next month. “I’m delighted with that. While you’re of an age to play for the 21s, I think it’s brilliant to do it every time. Scot Gemmill likes to pick players who are playing so that was a big thing for me.”
He reflects on his Hearts years warmly. Playing in Tallin’s Le Coq Arena and the Hibernians Stadium in Paola were peaks. However, Smith does not intend those memories to be his career pinnacle.
“I was there since I was 14. To go in full-time, get into the first team and play 40 games overall, I can’t complain. Getting opportunities to play in European qualifiers is something I will look back on fondly. I hope I can get myself back to a level where that happens again. The whole experience was great. You’re going away seeing how clubs in Europe work. To play in those ties was brilliant. It didn’t end particularly well but being involved in it was good for me. I’d like to think it won’t be the last time I do that.
“When you’re at Hearts playing at Tynecastle in front of 15,000 or 16,000 every week, you maybe don’t appreciate it until you take a step back and look at it. They are a huge club in this country. To have played for them at Tynecastle is one of the highlights.”