FRESH from a loan stint at Raith Rovers, Liam Smith is ready to step immediately into the Hearts team if required against St Johnstone tomorrow.
The temptation for head coach Robbie Neilson to deploy Smith at right-back and move Callum Paterson forward is strong.
The 20-year-old was brought back to Riccarton to play and improve after a month-long loan at Stark’s Park. He is the natural long-term successor to Paterson, who will leave Hearts when his contract expires in May. Therefore, it stands to reason Neilson wants Smith to gain as much senior experience as possible between now and then.
He can offer a sound defensive option at both right-back and left-back. It remains to be seen whether Neilson opts for Smith behind the more attack-minded Paterson on the right flank tomorrow, but there is no question Smith has a role to play for the remainder of the campaign. He is eager to show he can handle the pressure of an extended first-team run.
A hamstring injury limited him to only two appearances for Raith and he has rested for the last four weeks. He feels cured, fit and hungry to cement himself at Tynecastle. “The injury is okay now. It took a while but I didn’t play for a month so that’s it fully recovered. I think I’ll be in the squad tomorrow,” Smith told the Evening News.
“Coming back, Hearts maybe have plans so from my point of view it’s a positive that they’ve decided to bring me back. Coming from the manager, it’s always nice to hear him saying you’re in his plans. I just need to work hard in training and push to get in the team.
“I thought I’d stay on loan at Raith, maybe for another month. For the manager to bring me back when everything is fine here, it’s a huge positive and it gives me confidence going into the next couple of months.”
Comparing him to Paterson is unfair for many reasons. Smith’s best attributes are mainly defensive, whereas his more senior colleague thrives going forward. Paterson is older and more physically developed with more than 150 competitive Hearts appearances on his CV. Then there is the fact he is Scotland’s first-choice international right-back.
Smith is the understudy for now. “I think we’re quite different. Going forward, Callum’s one of the best full-backs I’ve seen – not just in Scotland. The goals he gets for a full-back are incredible. I don’t look at myself in that way in terms of scoring goals, although there are things I can learn from Callum and add them to my game to make me better.
“I’d say I’m a solid defender. A modern full-back has to be able to do both attacking and defending. I think I can do both but defensively I’m pretty secure. I’m pretty level-headed. I don’t get too over-excited.
“It doesn’t particularly faze me going in and playing in front of a big crowd at Tynecastle. I enjoy it. I’ve enjoyed all the games I’ve played. It’s not daunting thinking: ‘I’ve played in the Championship, now I have to go and play in the Premiership.’ I look forward to it.”
Paterson’s expected move south in time for next season will illustrate the pathway which is open for any young Hearts player. Develop your career at Tynecastle and it could take you anywhere from England to China, where Osman Sow landed after his £1million-plus move in February.
“I think you’ve got to look at these boys and try to achieve what they’re achieving,” said Smith. “Firstly, you need to do well and break into the Hearts team. That’s my sole aim right now. It gives you motivation when you see there is a pathway to push on. If you do well and succeed here, you can then maybe progress in your career.
“I don’t have a specific number of games in mind. In my head, I want to push on and play as many matches as I can. I’ll only manage that by working hard. People talk about Callum leaving and things like that but I don’t look at that. I just have to focus on myself and push myself forward. That’s what will get me into the team.”
“There are a few possibilities with me being able to play both sides. I’d be happy to play anywhere for Hearts if it means I’m in the first team. I’m still learning all the time but you only learn by playing games. Any time I’ve gone into the first team, I’ve felt comfortable. I don’t think I’ve looked out of place. I’m comfortable playing in the first team but I still have a lot of learning to do.
Despite being a relative novice with less than 20 senior appearances for the Edinburgh club, Smith can call upon some vital knowledge gained over the summer. He started three of Hearts’ four Europa League qualifying ties and gained vital experience against FC Infonet in Estonia and in both legs against the Maltese side Birkirkara.
“Europe is totally different to league matches. You’re playing against teams that have a totally different style. I haven’t really come up against sides which sat behind the ball quite like the European teams did. There’s also a bit more pressure in Europe because it’s a bigger competition. Putting all that together, it was a good learning curve for me.
“After playing a bit for Hearts at the start of the season, then not so much as time went on, it was a good thing for me to get out on loan and play games for a bit. It’s a good level and Raith were doing really well. The timing wasn’t great with the hamstring injury but even a couple of games is beneficial rather than player under-20s.
“I’ve also been delighted to be involved with the Scotland Under-21 squad. It’s always good to get away with the boys and represent your country at any level.”
Both Hearts and the Scottish Football Association agree Smith harbours plenty potential for the future. The next few months look like being a pivotal period in his burgeoning career.