Liam Smith, the Hearts right-back, is encouraged that his club are making a concerted effort to improve their players’ physique after the eye-opening experience of seeing his Scotland Under-21 colleagues overpowered by their athletic French counterparts.
The 19-year-old, who was a late call-up to the squad but didn’t play in the European Championship qualifier in Angers last Thursday, watched from the stand as France eased to a 2-0 victory.
Smith admitted to being taken aback at the difference in physique between the two teams and explained that watching robust French right-back Antoine Conte, of Reims, keeping his Hearts and Scotland colleagues Billy King in Sam Nicholson in check made him realise he still has a long way to go in terms of his own physical development and he is pleased Hearts are placing an emphasis on producing athletes with the required pace, power and stamina to complement their technique.
“The whole French team were athletic and physical as well as technically impressive,” said Smith, who hopes to make his Scotland Under-21 debut in tomorrow’s must-win qualifier against Northern Ireland in Paisley. “I made a point of watching their right-back and he was a big boy.
“At Hearts, as well as working on the technical side, we’re working all the time in the gym and working on our physicality. The sports science guys at Hearts are really good. We have our own programmes in the gym that we work on three or four times a week. If we keep doing that, we can bridge the gap.”
Smith takes inspiration from Callum Paterson, a fellow right-back who has graduated from the Hearts academy, made more than 100 first-team appearances and earned a call-up to the full Scotland squad. The 21-year-old’s shoulder injury cost him his chance of making Gordon Strachan’s pool for this round of international fixtures, but it did pave the way for Smith to start Hearts’ last four matches and subsequently earn his own call-up to Sbragia’s squad.
“If Callum hadn’t got injured I might not have got my chance at Hearts and I probably wouldn’t be here,” said Smith. “He would probably have been in the full squad, which just shows you how well he’s doing.”