Michael Smith believes Hearts’ gruelling pre-season laid the foundations for their impressive start to the campaign.
Manager Craig Levein ensured his players were put through a rigorous summer programme, which included an old-school workout at Gullane beach, in an effort to ensure they were in prime condition after raising concerns about the team’s fitness levels last term.
Smith feels this has benefited the squad both in a physical context and in terms of fostering a strong team spirit, leading to a start to the campaign in which Hearts have surged five points clear at the top of the Ladbrokes Premiership with five straight wins.
“We had a tough pre-season and it brought us all together,” said Smith. “We all pulled each other through it and that helped us massively. We are a band of brothers, and that day at Gullane beach was my hardest in football without any exception.
“We came out of that feeling very strong and feeling better and more together. You get the fitness and the camaraderie side of it and we are reaping the benefits of that now.”
Smith explained that it was clear from the outset that pre-season was going to be one of the toughest ever for most of the Hearts players, many of whom had just arrived at the club. “Even the second day of pre-season, we did a lot of running and the boys were like, ‘wow! This is mad’. Then when we got to the beach, they thought, ‘aw a beach day brilliant’ and we’re up and down sand dunes. They quickly realised we meant business this year. We went to a hotel afterwards for lunch and everyone was just silent. Everyone was knackered. It was great though, everyone had got through it and pulled each other through. The attitude within the changing room is brilliant and that’s where the togetherness on the pitch comes from. You get a tough day on a Saturday and you know that you can pull someone through, and they can pull you through. It helps knowing that you have those people out on the pitch.”
Smith joined Hearts last summer when Ian Cathro was in charge and the Northern Irishman confirmed that Levein’s pre-season was more physically taxing than his predecessor’s. “I came in half-way through pre-season last year and the boys were saying they hadn’t done a lot of running sessions,” he explained. “The game’s moving on with doing a lot of stuff with the football and things like that, but you still have to get that base fitness in with a little bit of running at the start and I don’t think they’d done that. This year after the pre-season we’ve had, we’re reaping the rewards. We are a lot fitter than last season and that has shown on the pitch.”
Despite such a productive summer, Smith is pleasantly surprised things have caught fire for Hearts considering the bulk of their squad is now made up of new recruits.
“We have clicked straight away and it is hard to get that with a new team,” he said. “From my experience it has taken a few months to see the benefits on the pitch but it has happened immediately.
“People are getting carried away but we know it is only five games in and there is a long way to go. It is nice at the minute and we just need to see where it takes us.”
Smith believes the fact they have barely been affected by the sale of countryman Kyle Lafferty, last season’s top scorer, is a good indicator of Hearts’ current strength.
“Kyle wasn’t even starting anyway, he was on the bench,” said Smith. “He scored a lot of goals for us last year and we hadn’t really had a lot of goals from elsewhere in the team. But this year, Naisy (Steven Naismith) is popping up, Uche (Ikpeazu) is popping up, Olly Lee – they’ve all been brilliant. We’ve made some great signings and they’re all helping us. There’s goals coming from everywhere and we’re just getting on with it.We’ve had no qualms about Kyle leaving. He did really well for us but he wanted to go, and that’s it.”