Liam Smith is an apprentice who is keen to learn from his many masters.
Not only is the Hearts full-back training every day alongside Callum Paterson, the player he is expected to succeed at Tynecastle when the Scotland right-back eventually heads off to pastures new, his manager, Robbie Neilson, spent his career patrolling that area. Even when he opted to head to East Fife on loan, seeking some first-team football, he was under the tutelage of another international full-back, Gary Naysmith, who also spent a major chunk of his career in the English Premier league.
As far as mentors go, he has not be shy of options and, judging by his performances so far, it is clear that Smith is a conscientious student. Still only 20, he has filled in for both Paterson on the right and, last week, he was trusted to switch to the other side of the park, starting ahead of Moroccan international Faycal Rherras. It is an ongoing education but one Smith is enjoying.
“It’s been pretty positive this season. Playing in Europe was great. Then my game-time shortened a little bit.”
Of the opinion that he had benefitted from the rough and tumble of that previous loan spell at East Fife, he chose to head off on a short-term deal to Raith Rovers in the hope it could act as the catalyst for even greater improvement. Injury curtailed that but now he is back in the reckoning at Hearts, who travel to Hamilton tonight on league duty.
“I think it’s been a decent start to the season. But I think I need to try to cement my place in the team. It is a big season for me. People are talking about Callum maybe moving on but I can’t really look at that. I need to look at what I’m doing and continue to work hard to show I can play in the team whether he’s here or not.”
Paterson’s, pictured, contract expires this summer and, although Hearts rebuffed bids for him in August and have said they are ready to do so again in January, his departure is now a case of when, not if. “I don’t think I can rely on him leaving or think about it. This season has taught me that. But if he does go I need to be ready to step up. Whether or not the gaffer gives me that opportunity, it’s up to me to work hard and show I am ready. I feel pretty confident going into the games I am playing in and I’d be confident stepping into his place.”
Many would look at the guy who has been denying them and feel nothing but frustration but rather than view Paterson solely as competition, Smith sees him as an inspiration and a reminder of the opportunities awaiting him.
“You can look at it both ways. You can talk about if he wasn’t there I might be playing. Or I can look at it in terms of having a Scotland international to watch and learn from. Last season I got a bit lucky. He got injured for eight weeks or so and I came in. I’m not kicking him in training, though. I don’t think that would be good!
“We’re around the same age, so he’s good both on and off the pitch. He’s a good laugh and he helps you along.
“I think it gives everyone inspiration when you look at the journey he’s come on, from the Academy into the first team. He’s played however many games in the first team and now he’s the top right-back in the country and he’s pushed out a player who has played in the English Premier League for so many years. From his point of view it’s great.”