Exclusive: Michael Smith welcomes renewed competition at Hearts with Nathaniel Atkinson arrival

The incoming signing of Nathaniel Atkinson can only be a good thing in the eyes of veteran Hearts right-back Michael Smith, even if it means his standing as a regular starter in the first-team is under threat.

By Craig Fowler
Wednesday, 29th December 2021, 8:00 am
Michael Smith celebrates with fellow goalscorer Ben Woodburn (not visible) after the latter's strike in the 2-1 win over Ross County. Picture: SNS
Michael Smith celebrates with fellow goalscorer Ben Woodburn (not visible) after the latter's strike in the 2-1 win over Ross County. Picture: SNS

The Australian will join from Melbourne City in the January transfer window as soon as he receives a work permit to play in the UK. The 22-year-old is advertised as an attacking full-back, one who possesses the tools and engine required to thrive in Robbie Neilson’s preferred 3-4-3 system at Tynecastle this season.

In order to do so, he’ll need to dislodge the club stalwart who has made himself a near-mainstay on the right of defence since joining the Edinburgh side from Peterborough United in 2017.

There were understandable concerns among supporters when Hearts exited the summer window without signing another option to play right wing-back. Smith was about to turn 33 and was being pushed into a more advanced role. Could he provide the attacking impetus required while also maintaining his reliability in defence? As it turns out there was nothing to fear. Smith has been excellent as the club have surpassed pre-season expectations to sit with a five-point lead in third place going into the winter break.

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Yet Smith will have a battle on his hands to keep the jersey with Atkinson arriving amid a decent amount of fanfare and a three-and-a-half-year deal. The Northern Irishman, who is set to trigger a one-year extension himself if he breaks an appearance threshold this campaign, insists he’s ready for the competition.

“I’ve heard only really good things about him,” Smith told the Evening News. “It’s only going to make us stronger, to help us push on further and cement third place, or perhaps even help us try and challenge Celtic and Rangers a little bit.

“At my age you want to play every week. The gaffer and Joe [Savage] have brought Nathaniel in. The spot is up for grabs. Taylor Moore has been brilliant when he’s played there as well. We’ll see what happens. If he’s playing well then I’m happy to be a team player. If I’m playing well and I’ve got the shirt, that’s just the way it is.

“You have to have that little bit of competition. Perhaps for the last few years there hasn’t been that much competition at my position. It’s good to have it as it only makes you better.

“We’ll get him in in January. He looks to be a good, athletic player and people are raving about him, so hopefully he can do the job for us.

“We’ll see what happens with the new contract. If I trigger the clause I trigger the clause, but I’ll be delighted to get another year here. I’ve made it my home here. I’ve moved up with my family and my kids enjoy it here.”

Even if Smith loses his job at wing-back to Atkinson, his ability to perform in a number of different roles should mean he maintains his status as a first-team regular.

Supporters have long marvelled at the player’s ability to perform whether he’s deployed at right-back, left-back, wing-back, centre-back or in the centre of the midfield.

It was the latter where Smith was stationed in the Boxing Day win over Ross County and, even though it was his first appearance in the role for Hearts since starting there in the 2-2 draw against Hamilton Accies in the curtailed 2019/20 season, he was once again a stand-out, scoring the opener in the 2-1 triumph.

“When the gaffer told me before the game I would be returning to centre-midfield, I thought I should try and get forward that little bit more and impact the team,” said Smith.

“I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to score the opener. That was nice, but I probably could’ve had at least one more, which is disappointing. I could’ve helped make the game a little bit more easier on us. But it’s always nice to get on the scoresheet.

“With the first-half chance I missed I was stretching for it. The Ross County defender looked like he was going to get back and block it so I was just stretching a little. It happens. I had a glancing header from a Ben Woodburn cross later as well.

“I quite enjoyed it, especially first half. With the football we were playing it was a joy to be in there. Second half it was a bit tougher with them piling on the pressure, hitting long balls and stuff like that. But overall I enjoyed it. You get more of the ball in the centre, and you probably get the chance to be higher up the pitch and closer to the goal.”

Smith admits his day’s work was made easier by the familiar presence of Peter Haring beside him. The Austrian was named as one of two man-of-the-match award-winners by Hearts – alongside Woodburn, who netted the second – at the conclusion of the game as he keeps up his impressive form of late.

“Myself and Peter have been together for a good few years now so we know each other’s games well,” said Smith. “He’s been fantastic since he came back into the team. We always knew he’s been a fantastic player. He’s taken it in his stride, not playing maybe as much as he wouldn’t liked, but he’s been phenomenal the last three or four games.

“He makes a big impact with his calmness on the ball and his physicality. He’s got a good eye for a pass as well. He’s brilliant to play with in there for me because he can win all those headers and stuff like that. He’s a great guy around the dressing room as well.”

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