Michael Smith: 'This Hearts squad is the strongest I've played in but one dip in form and you could be out the door'
It wasn’t so long ago that Michael Smith played in a Hearts team containing Kyle Lafferty, David Milinkovic, Esmael Goncalves, Christophe Berra and Jon McLaughlin.
A great survivor of recent Tynecastle player turnover, it is rather arresting hearing Smith describe the current squad as the strongest of his four years at the club. He feels they are well placed to challenge traditional rivals for European places, starting with Aberdeen on Sunday.
Hearts are one of two newly-promoted sides in this season’s cinch Premiership, Dundee being the other. Manager Robbie Neilson oversaw an extensive rebuild after taking charge last summer and two wins from two league games so far this term offers plenty encouragement.
The ever-competitive Premiership is arguably even more intense now with Hearts back, Hibs and Aberdeen improving along with Dundee United, plus St Johnstone continuing to work wonders under Callum Davidson.
“It’s great to be back in the Premiership. You want to challenge yourself,” said Smith. “Everyone is expected to play second fiddle to the Old Firm but it’s up to the rest of us to try and catch up and compete for the rest of the European places.
“It feels like the strongest Premiership since I’ve been here and it will be a really tough season. This is the strongest Hearts squad we have had since I have been here and we are looking forward to the challenge.”
Internal competition provides daily tests for Smith and his colleagues as they know one poor performance could prove costly. “The competitiveness in training is brilliant. That’s just the way football is. If you’re not performing and the gaffer doesn’t fancy you then you’re out the team and you’re away. That’s down to you,” said the 32-year-old defender.
“Even though we are good friends in the changing room you want to take someone’s shirt or keep your own shirt. That’s how football is. It’s a cut-throat industry but you can’t take things to heart.
“If you don’t put in performances you will be gone. There have been good players here who have left because they have dipped in form. That means you are always looking over your shoulder and always trying to give your best.
“Over the last year the staff have brought in good players. We’ve got John Souttar back now and playing really well. We will probably bring in a few more players but this is the strongest squad I have played in here, without a doubt.
“It’s a smaller squad than recent years but in some ways that can help. Smaller numbers in training mean we can concentrate on things better, rather than going out training with 25-30 players when all you can do is play games without upsetting people.”
That squad will be tested by Stephen Glass’ rejuvenated Aberdeen. Investment in signings like Christian Ramirez, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, Scott Brown and Declan Gallagher is designed to help the Pittodrie club become Scotland’s undisputed third force.
“They will be a threat,” acknowledged Smith. “I played against JET before. He was at Bristol City and he was on fire. I was with Peterborough and he scored a goal from 40 yards against us.
“He’s a big powerful lad. He’s had a few injury problems but Aberdeen will probably suit him. Hopefully we’ll keep him quiet and get the result.”