Three games into the new season and Hearts already find themselves facing a must-win fixture.
Beating Dunfermline at Tynecastle tomorrow is essential to guarantee passage to the Betfred Cup knockout rounds. It would also atone slightly for Tuesday night’s aberration in Peterhead.
Failing to get out of a group section containing two League Two clubs, Elgin City and Peterhead, League One East Fife plus Championship side Dunfermline is unthinkable for Ian Cathro’s newly-assembled side. An abundance of experience was recruited over the summer to improve on the wretched end to last season, so failing at the first hurdle simply wouldn’t be tolerated.
There is a fair degree of pressure on Hearts players tomorrow, then. They know the expectations surrounding them as the group’s only top-flight team. They are expected to finish above the rest but losing 2-1 at Balmoor leaves them in a vulnerable position before a league ball has been kicked yet.
Defender Michael Smith is determined to confront the situation head-on. Pressure in football is inevitable for anyone aiming high and he wants to embrace the reality of Hearts’ Betfred Cup position. They beat Elgin 1-0 and East Fife 3-0 before a horrible midweek night in Aberdeenshire. Now, it’s win the final group game against a free-scoring Dunfermline team or rely on results elsewhere going in their favour. From the eight Betfred Cup groups, eight winners and four best runners-up will progress.
“The boys are experienced enough to know pressure is a good thing in football,” said the Northern Irishman, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “I think you have to embrace it, go out there and play your own game. The fans will be behind us and pushing us on. The lads are old enough and ugly enough to know what’s at stake and how to deal with the game.
“We’ve still got a chance. We know we’ve got to go out and win to go through. That’s our aim in every game but tomorrow it’s massive for the players, the staff, the fans and the club. We want to get through to that second stage of the League Cup.
“That’s what you play football for. You want to thrive on the pressure, you want to play in games where you need to win. You need to win every game really but games like this have a bit more added meaning. I’m sure it will be a great game.
“It would be nice to already have qualified but the boys will be looking forward to tomorrow. There’s no point playing in games where there is nothing to play for. Nobody really enjoys that sort of thing, but both teams will be going for it so I’m sure the fans will be in for an entertaining match.”
Reflecing on the Balmoor debacle, Smith admitted lessons must be learned. “It was difficult to take but, looking back at the game, I think we did create enough to win,” he said. “Speaking afterwards, we know it was nowhere near where we should be. We’re looking to put that right tomorrow now. The manager said much the same as the players. We’re all disappointed.
“It happens to everyone. Down in England, some of the Premier League teams lose to League One and League Two teams in the cup competitions. It happens all over the world. You’ve just got to take it on the chin. We learn from it and move on.
“The first ten or 15 minutes when Peterhead were on top was just unacceptable. That set the tone for the night. We need to start games better. Starting games well is massive for us to get on top of teams. On Tuesday night, we didn’t do that. It’s a massive thing for us this season so we’re going to need to improve on that.”
Smith’s accurate analysis of what went wrong up north is very accurate. He and his team-mates have spent the last two days reflecting and assessing why they slumped to defeat against a part-time team three divisions below. Cathro is also keen to pinpoint the errors and ensure his players learn lessons.
“We’ll analyse the game properly because there are a number of things we need to look at,” he said. “How we control the middle of the pitch is one. That’s something we’re working on but there are a number of other things.
“We have a lot of new relationships across the team so we need to understand there is some time needed for those to develop. However, there are levels we can’t drop below. We need to make sure the attitude is consistent and that we’re making the correct decisions.
“Our decision-making and managing our frustrations were the bits where we suffered.”
Positives aren’t too hard to find, although they can’t be used to hide the deficiencies evident in Aberdeenshire. Striker Kyle Lafferty has claimed four goals in three competitive outings to date and looks very much a worthwhile and exciting summer signing. Smith has been equally impressive in the right wing-back role.
It was he who scampered forward to deliver the cross which led to Lafferty’s equaliser against Peterhead. Assists are high on his agenda in his first season in Scotland.
“That’s a huge part of my game, creating chances for the lads up top. It’s part of my job. I want to try to push towards double figures in assists this season, along with getting a few goals for myself. That’s my personal target. I usually get about six or seven assists per season, so playing higher up the pitch allows you to put in more crosses and get into the penalty box more.
“It probably is a little bit ambitious but you have to be ambitious in this game if you want to strive to be better. That’s my target as well. It definitely helps playing as a wing-back. I start higher up the pitch so I get a lot more of the ball in forward areas.
“I’m looking to improve on my final ball and create more chances for the lads up top. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who scores the goals or who sets them up, as long as we win. It would be nice to be involved in quite a few goals this season, though.”
The 28-year-old can be content with his contribution as one of Hearts’ most consistent performers so far. Filling Callum Paterson’s shoes as a right-wing rampager was never likely to be easy but Smith has willingly taken the burden on his shoulders.
He looks comfortable as an attacking wing-back and has the pace, vision and technical ability to be a major threat in the final third of the pitch.
“I’m happy enough, yeah. The manager wants me to play wing-back and I’m enjoying it. I’m still learning as everybody is. We’ve only been working on this set-up for a couple of weeks. Once it completely comes together, I’m sure we’ll properly click and we’ll start playing a lot better.
“I’m really enjoying my role, I get up and down the pitch well and do both the attacking and defensive side of the game. Hopefully I’ll chip in with a goal or two as well throughout the season.”