Hearts player Michael Smith recognises that something drastic has to happen in the second half of the season after months of “rotten” performances have left the Gorgie club in the doldrums. And, with major changes required to turn things around, the Northern Irishman admits that January cannot come quickly enough.
The side currently languishing at the foot of the Premiership welcome Aberdeen to Tynecastle this afternoon, well aware that it provides them with one last chance to grab a victory before the league’s winter shutdown. Anything else could see the gap between themselves and the sides just above them stretch beyond the already-unacceptable three-point void that already exists.
But, while the situation is dire, Smith believes that the coming month will serve up some hope, for a variety of reasons.
There has been talk of new recruits, which Smith says will bolster the squad, while the uninterrupted time on the training ground will also allow the new manager and his own coaching staff to impart their gameplan and ensure that those chosen to stick around know how to apply it on match day. The extra few weeks without a league game will also provide the breathing space needed to rehabilitate the broken bodies of those who have been missing through injuries and heal the bruised psyches of those who have been left trying, with extremely limited success, to hold the fort in their absence. Loanee players will also return to give the new manager even more food for thought.
But Daniel Stendel has already made some swift judgments and while some players have fallen short of his expectations and will be sidelined or moved on as he looks to bring in some new faces to set the tempo and the standards when the action gets back underway in three weeks, Smith is one of the men the gaffer senses could yet play an important role. While the likes of Glenn Whelan have been deemed surplus to requirements, Smith has been lauded for his leadership qualities and trusted to implement Stendel’s playing style in the middle of the park.
“I have been here for three years now and I care about the club so I am going to do everything I can to get us out of this mess,” said Smith.
“We are nowhere near the end of the season. We still have plenty of games to get ourselves out of trouble so I am not looking down.
“I’m only 31 and I can still get about the pitch. I’m fit and always have been pretty fit. I’ve played a few positions to help the squad out and he [the manager] realises that, so he must think I’m doing an okay job because we’re doing an all right job in the middle.”
While his absence has been felt in a backline that has conceded too many sloppy goals, his positivity and willingness to operate further forward and take responsibility while trying to push his team-mates upfield in an attempt to make things happen has impressed his gaffer.
“Week in, week out, it is tough for us just now,” added Smith. “We are conceding really poor goals and we are not scoring any goals so it is a recipe for disaster.”
While conceding 17 goals – many of which could and should have been avoided – in the eight games since they last won, at the start of November, Hearts have netted just twice. It is a toxic mix but in the couple of weeks since Stendel’s arrival there have been signs of improvement, at training, and in games where everything remains far from right but recent displays – in spells against Celtic and Hibernian – are showing that it may well be a work in progress.
Smith said: “He calls people into his office and lets them know what he wants… I like his style, I like his persona, he is a good guy and he wants the best for us. Come January I’m sure we’ll all be working hard to get ourselves out of this position.
“He wants everyone to work hard, wants the press and wants everyone to be alert and energetic.
“For me personally, we’re going into games now with a bit more belief that we are a good team and we’re a bit more positive, but if we’re going to give away sloppy goals we’re going to lose games.
“So, we need to nip that in the bud and also we need players back that are going to put the ball in the back of the net.
“We are missing some players but it is down to the boys who are on the pitch to put in the performances, week in, week out. Some performances aren’t good. We are not getting the best of some guys who have great potential and it all adds up.
“He will bring in some players who will play in his style and there are some players here who like that style.
“We’ll have Conor Washington back, I know Naisy keeps coming back and breaking down again but, hopefully in the next few weeks until the first game in January he’ll get back to full fitness. We do have players who will score goals.
“Conor’s training and will be back for the first game in January. John Souttar’s really close as well and I’m sure the gaffer will have identified a few targets who he’ll want to bring in. So, we’ll see what happens in January but he needs to change it.
“We probably need that to galvanise the group.”