Unbeaten and confident, Hearts travel to Rangers confident but aware of how rough it can get at Ibrox
Michael Smith has experience of travelling to Ibrox with the untethered intention of prolonging an unbeaten start to the league season.
Three years ago, Hearts enjoyed a fabulous opening to their Premiership campaign, pulling together six wins and a draw to sit top of the table, and they headed through to Glasgow looking to build on that.
Things did not go to plan and after conceding three goals in the first 32 minutes of a calamitous first half, Smith rubbed salt into weeping wounds by picking up a second booking just ten minutes after the interval to compound the maroon misery. It did delight some of his Northern Ireland mates, though, which is why, as much as he tries, he has not been allowed to forget it.
“I’ve had plenty of tough times in Glasgow,” recalled Smith. “Was that the day I got sent-off? Some of my mates from back home are Rangers fans and there were a few of them there that day, so they’ll never let me forget that. I’ll put it down to a bad day at the office.”
Capital rivals Hibs were unable to overcome a similar obstacle when, despite taking an early lead thanks to Kevin Nisbet, a couple of weeks ago, Ryan Porteous was sent packing and Steven Gerrard’s men made the most of their numerical advantage to turn things around.
Hearts do not want to give Rangers that kind of assistance as they look to leapfrog them at the top of the table.
“Of course it’s important to keep 11 on the pitch. Especially at Ibrox,” said Smith. “It’s hard, they make the pitch big, the crowd are on top of you and if you go down to ten you basically have no chance.
“It was my fault a few years ago. But 90 per cent of things have to go right to get a result at Ibrox.”
That involves getting an early foothold in the game, if possible. But denying their hosts one if they can’t.
*You usually have to get through that opening storm,” said the Northern Irishman, who sat out the last international gathering in a bid to rest a niggling injury and head into the next phase of domestic games in peak form. “You go there and the first 10 minutes is always frantic and the crowd is always on you. But, you get through that and the game settles down, and you’ve then got to play your football and take chances.
“Our squad is at a better level now. We started really well that year but this year the quality we have, the togetherness we have is second to none. I’m looking forward to the game and I’m sure the rest of the boys are.”
And, having learned another lesson from the 2018 humbling, Smith cautions against underestimating a side who have yet to reach the standards they set on the way to the league title last season.
Three years ago they had squandered 10 points in the first seven games, this term they have dropped five in eight
“People have said they’re not the Rangers of last year but they’re top of the league for a reason. They’ve got a great squad, they’re dangerous and we’ll go there under no illusions. It’s going to be hard.”