Liam Boyce and Michael Smith hungry to show Hearts are a Premiership force again

Northern Ireland internationalists Liam Boyce and Michael Smith belong in the Premiership with Hearts and will be hungry to prove their desire in next season’s top flight.

Michael Smith and Liam Boyce are both key players for Hearts.

That is the opinion of Stephen Craigan, the former Northern Ireland defender, who is pleased seeing two of his country’s key players return to top-level football.

Craigan admitted that Hearts’ enforced relegation to the Championship last summer was ill-deserved on the back of a controversial vote among SPFL clubs.

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Having won promotion last month with time to spare, the Edinburgh club are now eager to make their mark in the Premiership again. None more so than striker Boyce – named Championship Player of the Year by PFA Scotland – and defender Smith.

“I'm delighted,” said Craigan, speaking at the Premier Sports Cup draw. “It was a shame Hearts had to go down. We all said at the time that it was wrong with how it was contrived. I think Liam has taken his medicine.

“It would have been easy to ask to get away from the club to play Premiership football. He's built up his confidence and scored some goals. He is a terrific player.”

Boyce scored 16 goals in 29 games for Hearts this term to help secure a league title win and automatic promotion. The 30-year-old is forming a potentially useful striking partnership with the Frenchman Armand Gnanduillet which could prosper further in the top flight.

“I remember him [Boyce] playing for Northern Ireland against Austria in November,” recalled Craigan. “He was excellent with his back to play, his link-up play and bringing others into the game. He isn't blessed with pace but, when you aren't blessed with one attribute, the rest of your attributes have to improve.

“With Liam's hold-up play, his awareness around the box and the goals he scores, there's no doubt he will want to go back to the Premiership and probably right a few wrongs. As will the Hearts side. It's great to see him back.”

Northern Ireland failed to qualify for this summer’s European Championship. Boyce is in the squad for next month’s friendlies against Malta and Ukraine, but Smith was curiously left out by manager Ian Baraclough. Craigan believes he is more than capable of regaining a place.

“I've continually said that Steven Davis is like a fine wine that gets better with age. Michael Smith comes into that category. He's so versatile,” said Craigan.

“He's been playing centre midfield for Northern Ireland, he's been playing right-back for Hearts. He has played in the middle of a back three for Hearts, as a centre-half and as a left-back as well. That versatility is crucial for a manager coming up to the top flight.

“Like Boycie, Michael Smith is a Premiership player. That's where he should have been playing. Things didn't go the way they should've gone but they've come back with a little bit of hunger and desire. That's important and they will want to show this season that Hearts are a force to be reckoned with.”

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