Michael Smith: Hearts aiming to go through red lights in Aberdeen
Aberdeen striving for third place to guarantee European football, Hearts striving to avoid further injuries before the Scottish Cup final. It is difficult to ignore the fact that tonight’s Premiership meeting at Pittodrie has a rather predictable feel to it before kick-off.
Life has been grim up north for Hearts for some considerable time. They have scored just one solitary goal in the Granite City in five and a half years. For the record, Abiola Dauda claimed it in a 1-0 win in May 2016. The rest of the visits to Aberdeen in recent seasons can be filed under “drudgery”.
Will this evening be different? The Edinburgh club are without some of their most influential players, including top goalscorer Steven Naismith, fellow striker Uche Ikpeazu and defensive midfielder Peter Haring. Injuries have claimed those three and others towards the end of a campaign when the Riccarton treatment room has literally never been empty.
There are some positives, nonetheless. Aberdeen are also ravaged by injuries. Two of their most influential attackers, Northern Ireland’s Niall McGinn and the Scotland internationalist Gary Mackay-Steven, are also sidelined. The Hearts full-back Michael Smith has never experienced winning at Pittodrie but is encouraged about his team’s prospects tonight knowing he won’t be in direct opposition to any of those two.
“If Aberdeen’s best players are injured then we have more of a chance,” he told the Evening News. “They still have a good squad, though. No matter what team they put out it will be a good test for us. I know Niall quite well from the Northern Ireland squad. He’s a good player and I’ll be happy he won’t make it. He’s quite a quiet guy who is really nice off the pitch and very humble. He wouldn’t rub it in your face if Aberdeen won. It’s hard to say if he will also miss the international games next month.
“Aberdeen are a good team. It’s weird because they have got the better of us over the last few years up there, while we have got the better of them at Tynecastle during that time. I find it tough going up there. Aberdeen play well at home. We conceded an early goal at Pittodrie the last time and lost 2-0 but we had a few chances ourselves.
“It’s a case of cutting out those mistakes to stay in the game and then taking our own scoring opportunities. If you look back at the last few months, we need to start taking our chances a lot more. That would have taken us a bit higher up the league. Sometimes football is frustrating like that. If it goes well, like it did for us at the start of the season, everyone is happy. When it doesn’t go well, everyone is a bit annoyed and gloomy about it.”
Hearts are sixth in the Premiership table and trying to catch city rivals Hibernian, who sit three points better off in fifth place with two games remaining. Aberdeen are currently joint-third with Kilmarnock knowing fourth spot will only permit entry to the Europa League qualifying rounds if Celtic win the Scottish Cup.
Hearts can have a major say in that issue, of course. When others’ seasons are over, they have the added bonus of a cup final against Celtic at Hampden Park later this month.
“It’s only natural, now that we can’t get into Europe through the league, that the cup final becomes massive for us. That’s the main agenda,” admitted Smith. He arrived at Tynecastle from Peterborough United two years ago with ambitions to play on the grandest stages. The next three games – at Pittodrie, Celtic Park and Hampden – stroke a giant tick through that box.
“I want to play in the big matches. You see some of the attendances you play in front of up here and it’s great. We are now going to play in a cup final and that’s the reason I wanted to come up here. I like playing in those games in those environments. It has definitely been worthwhile move for me.”
The Hearts manager Craig Levein has said publicly that he will use several fringe players during the last two league games to preserve key players for the final. After missing eight weeks of action between February and April due to a torn thigh muscle, Smith is in no mood to be rested.
“I feel I’ve had my eight weeks off so I don’t need a rest,” smirked the 30-year-old. “I was speaking to our fitness and sports scientists and asking if I should just keep going through the summer. I feel like I’ve already had my summer off already, but they said, ‘no, you’ve worked hard through your injury so you will still need a few weeks’ break at the end of the season’. I want to play so, if the manager wants me in the team, I’m there.
“I like to keep playing to keep consistency up. If you have a few weeks off, it’s hard to come back in and play – especially if you are coming back into a big game like a cup final. I’d rather play right up to it. If the manager has different plans, that’s up to him.
“Some people may need a rest, some may not want a rest. I don’t know if he is going to speak to certain individuals or not. It’s up to him if people feel they need a little rest because the final is the most important thing now.”
Smith believes he is physically peaking at just the right time. The injury was a setback but the fact he will reach 40 appearances for club and country if selected tonight is testament to his status as a consistent and reliable defender.
“I’m 100 per cent now. Coming straight back into the team was tough for the first few games because I wasn’t 100 per cent fit. Now I’m definitely fine, no aches or pains. Nothing. I’m all good.”