The race to sign Hearts midfielder Connor Smith: 'I love the kid' says Hamilton manager John Rankin ahead of Scottish Cup tie

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Watch Connor Smith’s goal for Hamilton Academical against Dundee last Saturday and you instantly appreciate John Rankin’s admiration for the on-loan Hearts midfielder. Out of contract this summer, Smith can expect Hamilton to compete strongly for his permanent signature if no extension is agreed at Tynecastle Park.

Other clubs are monitoring the 21-year-old after he helped Queen’s Park gain promotion to the Championship during last season’s loan spell in Glasgow. Rankin, who nurtured Smith during five years as a Riccarton youth coach, spent months simply trying to get him to Hamilton on loan. It’s already proven shrewd business. As the youngster rattled a 30-yarder into the top corner with the outside of his right boot just four minutes into his home debut on Saturday, his talent was laid bare.

Connor is a player I chased since July. It’s been a long chase. Maybe I’m just getting slower,” laughed Rankin, eight months into his first managerial role at Accies. “Robbie Neilson [Hearts manager] wasn’t too keen to let him go on loan, which I understand because Hearts had European and league football on their schedule. When Connor became available in January, he was always one I wanted. He has really good quality, a good pedigree and is a Scotland Under-21 internationalist. I knew what I was getting and I trust the kid.

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“I’ve known him since he was 15, I know exactly how he works and his enthusiasm for the game. I thought he would enhance our team and you see that with his attitude in training. The enthusiasm is infectious and inspiring. You can see why we wanted him with his goal on Saturday. The drive he has to run beyond forwards and be an attacking threat is great. Obviously we are disappointed he can’t play in cup games, but having his quality between now and the end of the season will bring us goals and chances.”

And if Smith’s Hearts contract is not renewed? Rankin might be new to management but he is sufficiently savvy not to go overboard publicly. “He is Hearts’ player and I would never disrespect that,” he said. “He is our player just now and I’m going to enjoy him for the next few months. He has the quality that I would always be interested in. I love the kid. He is infectious in the way he trains and plays and that’s always one I would admire.”

Loan regulations prevent Smith facing his parent club in Friday evening’s Scottish Cup fourth-round tie at the ZLX Stadium. That's New Douglas Park for anyone not familiar with Accies’ sponsorship movements. The club’s ex-Jambo contingent still contains Dylan McGowan and Dario Zanatta, however. “Dylan was at Hearts for a period of time and Dario was in the system there,” said Rankin.

“I wouldn’t say they will be looking to answer doubters against their old club, but they will want to make people aware that they made a career for themselves away from Tynecastle. I’ve been there myself going in against your old team with the bit between your teeth. Friday is more about two or three individuals. It’s about us competing as a team against the third-best club in the country.”

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Hamilton carry momentum into Friday’s tie despite sitting bottom of the Championship table. They have enjoyed five wins and a draw in their last six games, including a penalty-shootout victory over Premiership Ross County in the last round of the cup. “That was a good opportunity for us to test ourselves against a Premiership team,” said Rankin. “Our form hadn't been too good but I thought we did well and competed. That has probably given us a platform to go on a run since then. I watched Hearts last Wednesday against Rangers at Tynecastle. This is a chance for our players to test themselves against some of the country’s best players. The advantage we have is we are at home.”

Hamilton manager John Rankin congratulates Saturday's goalscorer Connor Smith.Hamilton manager John Rankin congratulates Saturday's goalscorer Connor Smith.
Hamilton manager John Rankin congratulates Saturday's goalscorer Connor Smith.

Extra-time was required for Accies to beat Queen of the South 2-1 and reach the SPFL Trust Trophy final last night. Consequently, some of their players may feel fatigue against Hearts. Maybe not 16-year-old Ryan One, who scored the winner and will probably still be high on adrenaline. Rankin’s respect for Neilson will endure regardless of the result. “I loved my job at Hearts. I loved the club, the infrastructure, and it sent me on a coaching pathway,” he recalled.

“The standards set there helped me envisage what I wanted to do in coaching. Robbie was absolutely brilliant with me. I still speak to him every now and again. Craig [Levein] also helped me. I have fond memories and I still speak to the majority of players I had at Hearts. Loic Damour spent a lot of time out of the first team last season and I still get texts from him. It was just time for me to move on and climb up the coaching ladder.”

His approach centres around honing young players in a competitive environment. In that sense, he is with an ideal club. “The club are trying to develop young players and that's a big part of my ethos. Ryan One, Chris McGinn, Fergus Owens and Gabriel Forsyth are all teenagers who have played in the Championship this season. That’s massive for their development and partly why the job appealed to me. Two 16-year-olds, a 17-year-old and a 19-year-old all involved in first-team football is phenomenal for them.

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“I’d been at Hearts for five years and seen young players progress. It was always rewarding. Obviously I want to win games, but I want to get players into the first team to give them a career platform to build a proper future. Us giving them a chance is brilliant, but I don’t want them to get comfortable. I want them to push each other every day to get to the next level. You can’t expect boys to be consistent every week at 16 or 17. If that was the case, they would be at a top club competing in the Champions League. We have to provide a platform for them to learn. Hopefully they go on the pitch fearless so that they excite supporters and make the team successful.”