Surprise Levein handshake caps off Liam Smith’s Hearts rise

Liam Smith is well prepared to continue in the Hearts first team if needed. Pic: SNS
Liam Smith is well prepared to continue in the Hearts first team if needed. Pic: SNS
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Liam Smith’s eminent rise continued in midweek with a call-up to the Scotland Under-21 squad. The teenager’s disbelief was compounded when Hearts director of football Craig Levein offered congratulations before head coach Robbie Neilson had even told the player of his international recognition.

Smith was in the dressing room prior to Hearts Under-20s’ league match against Hibs earlier this week when Levein offered a handshake. Not knowing why, Smith reciprocated but wasn’t actually told he was in the Scotland Under-21 squad until the following morning.

“I was delighted. I’ve only been involved with Scotland at under-19s and other levels before that so, to get the step up, I was really pleased,” said the full-back.

“It was quite funny because I was at the 20s game against Hibs and Craig Levein said in the dressing room: ‘Congratulations!’ But I didn’t know what it was for because nobody had told me. It was the morning after that the gaffer pulled me aside and told me.

“I just said [to Levein]: ‘I’m not sure what you’re talking about.’ He just said he would need to speak to Robbie. I can’t say I had any inkling.”

Perhaps he shouldn’t be so surprised. Smith, 19, has proven an able deputy for the injured Callum Paterson at right-back in Hearts’ last three fixtures. Three victories and three clean sheets show the teenager is more than ready to play a part at first-team level. He will continue in defence against St Johnstone this afternoon.

“It is an easy transition to make when the back four and the team in general were playing so well,” explained Smith. “I have enjoyed every minute and hopefully I have taken my opportunity.

“It has all happened quickly but I think, coming in, I have done quite well so that has helped me get the call up but it has all happened over the space of a few weeks and I am really pleased.”

He joins Tynecastle colleagues Jordan McGhee, John Souttar, Jack Hamilton and Sam Nicholson in Ricky Sbragia’s squad. Scotland face France on Thursday and Northern Ireland the following Tuesday in two important European Under-21 Championship qualifiers.

“There are five plus 
Billy King [on loan at 
Rangers] and I think it is a credit to the club that there were so many players in it already,” said Smith. “I will go away with a lot of top players and, when I look at the squad, it will be a great experience.”

Having followed Paterson’s path from Riccarton youth academy to first team, Smith is now doing likewise at international level by replacing him in the Under-21 squad.

“He would probably 
have been in the full Scotland squad had it not been for his 
injury. He is a top player and being around him and watching him on a Saturday, you see a lot of things and learn from him.”

Getting in the team ahead of a fully-fit Paterson is another matter, however. Young Smith is having to show real patience.

“I don’t think it has been difficult because I know how good Callum is. I’m not frustrated,” he continued. “I’m just doing away in the 20s and, if the opportunity came along – as it has – then I was just looking to take it. Hopefully I’ve done that.

“I think there is room for both of us [at Hearts] I don’t know what will happen but I’m sure the future for Callum is bright, wherever he goes. I’m sure he will move on to really big things and if that happens then I would be looking to step into his shoes.

“It would be great to be in the team all the time but I’m sure that, when he comes back, he will go straight back in and that won’t be a problem. I will just take every game I get as it comes and hope to do well.

“Callum is naturally just an athlete but there are things you can look at and take from him and I am trying to do that.”

A loan spell at East Fife under former Hearts defender Gary Naysmith taught Smith how to handle senior football. “I think it helped me a lot. Defensively, you don’t really get what you get in league football in the under-20s. You don’t get the physicality. That helped me when I came into the Premiership. It is a lot more physical than the 20s.”

Indeed, the gym will be pivotal to his attempts to establish a regular first-team place. “Physicality has always been something I have looked to improve on. My size and using my body when defending is something I want to get better at.”