Ask Michael Smith to explain his feelings at the end of the last Edinburgh derby and you get the stare. “Anger, pure anger,” he says. There is no elaboration.
The Northern Ireland full-back learned the harsh reality of the Hearts-Hibs rivalry after Simon Murray’s goal gave the home side victory at Easter Road in October. That increased Hibs’ unbeaten run against their city neighbours to eight matches.
Smith and his team-mates are now thoroughly tired of hearing about derby dominance from across the Capital. Tonight at the redeveloped Tynecastle Park, there is a clear score to settle.
“We’ve got to go out and beat them. We’ve got to put a stop to it,” says Smith, sternly. “Our aim is to get the three points and turn them over. We know we haven’t been great, especially in the last game against them. We want to put that right in front of our home fans so we’re all looking forward to it.
“You’ve got to use that feeling from last time as motivation, 100 per cent. We’ll definitely look back at it – the way we felt after the game, and use it. I think everyone was really annoyed at that result and the fact we didn’t play well. If we play well, we will be a match for anyone.”
That theory is coming to fruition during an extremely prosperous Christmas period in Gorgie. Hearts are unbeaten in their last seven matches with four clean sheets in their last four. Throughout than run of fixtures, one upcoming assignment has never been far from the mind.
“We hear about the Hibs games all the time, a good couple of weeks before they’re here. That’s just down to the fans because they look forward to that game. We have to take each game as it comes and concentrate on them individually,” says Smith. “Now the Hibs game is upon us, we can get ready. We were in over Christmas working for tonight. We were in training on Christmas Day, which we are used to as footballers. This is the lifestyle we chose.”
The 29-year-old insists he is fit to play this evening despite being substituted near the end of Saturday’s goalless draw with St Johnstone.
“I will be ready, yes. It was a bit of cramp. I wasn’t feeling 100 per cent, not really myself, but I got through the game. I felt a bit of cramp before the end so I thought I’d better come off.
“I’m used to playing most games and I’m used to getting a good recovery session. I just didn’t feel the best in the build-up to the game. I was a bit under the weather so that’s probably caught up on me.
“We’re starting to pick up a bit of momentum now. That’s four clean sheets in a row and, obviously, the result against Celtic last week was great. We go into tonight’s game feeling positive and open-minded. It’s a new challenge.”
Smith is eager to hear Tynecastle roar with victory at the end of the biggest derby he has been involved in. He experienced Bristol Rovers against Bristol City during his time in England, as well as Peterborough United against Cambridge United.
None of the above can compare to the rivalry between the two Edinburgh clubs. “I haven’t experienced anything as big as this, so I’m looking forward to tonight. At Peterborough, we only played Cambridge pre-season. I played in a few Bristol derbies, they were quite good, but Hearts-Hibs is massive. There’s the rivalry between the two sets of fans and everyone knows about this match.”
Hearts want it to be known for the right reasons come full-time tonight. Their primary objective is beating Hibs and redressing some of the balance in this fixture, which would be a welcome way to start the New Year.
There is also a hazardous trip to Pittodrie to come at the weekend, where second-placed Aberdeen lie in wait. Avoiding defeat in both matches would see Craig Levein’s side enter the winter break on the back of a nine-game run without a loss and imbue them with further confidence for the second half of the Ladbrokes Premiership campaign.
“We can definitely stay unbeaten. We’re going for six points in these two matches,” insists Smith, who is pleased to see one of his own prophecies coming true over the last few weeks.
“I remember talking to the press around September time and saying: ‘Soon, we’ll click. We will start steamrollering teams.’ I think this is the start of it,” he says.
“We’re unbeaten in seven matches, we have four clean sheets in a row, we’ve turned Celtic over 4-0 and ended their unbeaten run.
“Things are coming together but we’ll keep working hard on the training ground to improve even more. I said it before that the quality around this squad is fantastic. It is starting to click and everyone is starting to perform and reach form. You can see the results of that on the pitch.”
Success is never instant and Smith and his colleagues now seem to be reaping the rewards for their patience.
Progress at Hearts since Craig Levein agreed to step forward into the manager’s chair once again has been continuous rather than explosive. The current run offers much optimism ahead of a January transfer window in which Levein will strengthen several areas of his squad.
One of his priorities is a left-back, which would allow smith to switch back across to his favoured right side having deputised on the left recently.
“It’s probably been a gradual progression. We are all working together as a team and we’re getting those clean sheets,” says Smith. “I’ll play anywhere but it’s not just the back four and the keeper who get credit for that, it’s the whole team. It’s a great group to be part of and we want to continue the way we’ve been going against Hibs.”