Michael Smith won’t forget his 50th game for Hearts. He freely admits to celebrating more extensively than ever before in his career after Saturday’s hard-earned victory in the Edinburgh derby.
The Northern Ireland defender was clocking up a half-century of competitive appearances in maroon since arriving from Peterborough United in summer 2017.
His heroic defending, along with that of colleagues Christophe Berra and Clevid Dikamona, helped Hearts record a 1-0 win over Hibs in their first triumph at Easter Road since April 2014.
Scenes at full-time were predictably jubilant as the travelling support acclaimed their victorious side’s defiance following Olly Lee’s sensational first-half strike. Smith loved every second of it. Speaking exclusively to the Evening News, he explained what beating Hibs meant to Hearts at the end of a difficult period. It was also a landmark moment for him personally.
“We were defending for our lives at the end as they were throwing everything at us. The emotions at the end were amazing,” said the 30-year-old. “In the changing room afterwards, the celebrations were unreal. It’s the most I’ve ever celebrated after winning a game. It just means so much to us. It means so much to the club and the maroon side of the city.
“Leading up to the game, I’d heard that we hadn’t won there in four years. It was a massive result for the players, staff, fans, just the whole club to get that off our backs now. We are only six points off the top of the league considering we haven’t been great for the last few weeks. It gives us plenty positives going into the winter break and I was delighted with that in my 50th game.”
The craving for a victory in Leith was inescapable for the Hearts players during the intense derby build-up. Similar to his on-field demeanour, Smith remained calm and focused on the task ahead. He has been in Edinburgh long enough to know the routine when it comes to crossing the city.
“The fans and even Gogsy the kitman were reminding me about it [the wait without a win at Easter Road]. Just pleasing people like that is great,” continued Smith.
“To get two wins in a row going into the winter break is a big relief. It gets a little bit off our chests after the bad run we had. We feel positive and the whole club is positive going into the shutdown.
“The whole club gets a lift from a result like that, especially going into this break. We have a few days off and then we’re off to Spain for a few days and some training. We will enjoy that, come back fresh and ready for the next part of the season.”
Smith has reached 50 competitive appearances as by being a model of consistency as much as versatility. He is predominantly a right-back but is capable of performing equally well in a number of positions across defence and midfield.
Left-back, wing-back and central midfield are all areas he has occupied with assurance. However, the argument that he is tailor-made for the traditional sweeper role in the middle of a back three grows stronger with every imperious display he delivers there.
Flanked by Dikamona and Berra, he produced his latest peerless offering in central defence against Hibs.
“I’m pleased getting to that [50-game] landmark. I think consistency is one of my main attributes,” said Smith. “I’m happy I’m in the team, I’m pleased playing centre-half in the middle of the back three and I’m happy to play there. The gaffer has faith in me to play there, I’m enjoying it and we’re playing well.”
The gaffer, Craig Levein, has more than just faith in this man for all seasons. “He is different class. He can play just about anywhere,” said Levein when asked about Smith’s recent success in central defence. “He played central midfield for us a fair bit last season. I think he quite enjoys having the change of dynamic and position in that sweeper role. He can do quite a lot of things quite well.
“He isn’t the tallest but when Christophe and Clevid are there then they deal with things. Michael reads the game well, he has good pace and he passes the ball well. He has done such a good job for the team.”
Has Smith been the butt of wind-ups from team-mates about adding yet another position to his increasing list of capabilities? The answer is presumably ‘yes’ but the player isn’t giving too much away. He remains endearingly modest in that sense and is unlikely to change.
“I’ve had a few shouts in the changing room but I just keep that hush-hush. I’m not the biggest guy but I read the game well and that’s why I’ve been doing so well there. It helps having big lads like Christophe and Clevid heading everything and me just sweeping up. The big boys deserve more credit than me.”
Levein understandably wants the ever-reliable Smith to remain at Tynecastle Park beyond the end of his contract this summer. Brief talks have taken place regarding an extension, although the details are yet to be finalised. Smith has already stated his desire to stay with Hearts and will not be difficult to deal with when he sits down with the manager.
“Me and the gaffer have had a little chat and we’re going to wait until after the winter break and get everything sorted. Hopefully we get that done and get the deal signed,” said the player.
His hope is that he can help the club recapture the blistering form with which they started the season. Prior to losing influential figures like Berra, John Souttar, Uche Ikpeazu and Steven Naismith to injury, Hearts were streaking clear of all challengers at the top of the Ladbrokes Premiership.
Their dominance came to a halt during November and December, but two wins against Hamilton and Hibs last week brought fresh hope that fortunes are turning positively once again.
“It’s crazy. We had four of our main players injured and people have to step up when that happens,” explained Smith. “We didn’t really do that and now we’re starting to slowly get these guys back.”
Berra and Naismith are already recovered, with Ikpeazu and Souttar to come. Levein’s side should have a more familiar look to it again shortly after the winter break. That point can’t come quick enough for players and fans alike.
“We still have Uche and Soapy to come back. We are slowly starting to get back to that winning mentality again and how to play games.
“The derby wasn’t a pretty performance from us but, at the end of the day, a win is a win. I’m sure the fans were happy with it.”