Genuine style was scarce at Tynecastle Park on Saturday as Hearts scratched out a narrow victory over Motherwell to end a seven-game winless run. One quality feature was Michael Smith’s imperious performance for the hosts, playing as an old-fashioned sweeper.
The Northern Irishman displayed his versatility again in the centre of a back three and strolled comfortably through the afternoon. Flanked by Clevid Dikamona and Christophe Berra, he covered in behind both centre-backs, read the game to precision, stifled danger, tackled strongly and distributed the ball with class.
In short, Smith’s performance was a welcome highlight in an otherwise unpolished 90 minutes. Motherwell competed aggressively and Hearts matched them – with pretty football the victim. No-one in maroon complained as Peter Haring’s deflected header on 14 minutes earned his team victory for the first time in eight fixtures, dating back to October 23.
Smith, 30, has played every defensive position, and operated in midfield since joining Hearts from Peterborough United 18 months ago. Sweeper was a new one for him but he adjusted to it in a manner which would have made even a legendary libero like Matthias Sammer proud.
“I’m enjoying it,” he said. “I’m playing beside the two big lads who just come and win the headers, so that makes me look good. They did well and I’m pleased we won the game.
“I’ve played right-back, left-back, centre-back, centre-mid, right-mid. I’ll be striker next week, I think. The manager did say to me afterwards: ‘Is there a position you can’t play?’ I’m just happy to be in the starting XI, wherever he wants to play me. I’m just happy he wants me in there.
“It’s massive getting the win on Saturday and now we go into Friday looking for another three points. I’m used to a physical battle now. I’m not the biggest guy but I’ve played a man’s game for years so I’m used to it.”
Style of play, panache and entertainment matter little when you are striving to end a winless run. That was Hearts’ mindset at the weekend. Having lost points to officiating errors in their previous two matches against Rangers and St Johnstone, they were determined to recapture winning form, no matter the cost.
Haring’s header from Oliver Bozanic’s cross was sufficient to earn three vital points. Motherwell saw a delightful lobbed strike by Curtis Main disallowed for a foul by the striker before the deadlock was broken. Consequently, they left Edinburgh aggrieved at not at least getting a point.
For Hearts, it was a first clean sheet since October with Smith and Berra marshalling the back line again. “Christophe is a massive player for us,” said Smith. “He wears his heart on his sleeve and defends for his life so we’re glad to have him back. We needed him back at this time.
“You know it’s going to be tough against Motherwell. They’re going to play long balls and you have to win your duels. Christophe and Clevid did that. I thought, as a back three or maybe a back five, we did really well.
“Christophe had a bad injury but he’s come back and played three games in a week. I thought he was only going to play 60 minutes against Rangers and then nothing on Wednesday. Now he’s played three times in a week.”
Steven Naismith is next in line to return from injury. He is expected to play against Aberdeen in two weeks’ time. “The guys are all on the way back to we will be back to full strength pretty soon,” said Smith.
“Hopefully that result we got on Saturday will help us turn the corner. All the doom and gloom there’s been for the last month – we’ve had a bad month but we’re picking up again and we’ll see where it takes us over the new year.”
Asked if Hearts were now back in the mix at the top of the table, Smith replied: “Definitely. We’re never out of it. We were enjoying playing good football at the start of the season and losing three or four key players in that system did hurt us. We had to change our style of play a little.
“We weren’t great over the last month. We’ve stuck together and done alright in the last few weeks. We just haven’t had the rub of the green with decisions and things, but we enjoyed the victory on Saturday.”