Hearts defender hails Craig Levein's tactical flexibility

Michael Smith says that life at Hearts these days is far more in keeping with the way he imagined it. When he joined the Gorgie side in the summer, he was sold on a club with big ambitions, who would be challenging for honours, enjoyed a strong bond with supporters and played at an atmospheric ground.

Hearts defender Michael Smith. Picture: Bruce White/SNS

Instead he found himself at a team in turmoil, turfed out of the League Cup by lower league opposition before the Premiership campaign had even kicked off. He and his team-mates were booed off the park, in a stadium which boasted a building site where the main stand used to be and the manager was sacked, leaving his own future uncertain.

In the months that have followed, the team battled back, making the most of a nomadic start to the league season and, with Craig Levein replacing Ian Cathro at the helm, they have found a way to win. They have also moved into the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup and notched high-profile victories over Celtic and derby rivals Hibs to win over the fans and generate a feeling of positivity within the newly revamped Tynecastle.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“Last summer, with the Dunfermline game [a drawn League Cup tie which proved the final straw for Cathro], I did say I wasn’t really expecting that but I didn’t really know what had gone on at the end of last season,” said Smith.

“But what’s done is done. Since the gaffer came in he’s been brilliant. I think a few people were humming and hawing about the appointment but they’re eating their words now. He’s very good tactically. He knows how he wants to beat teams and it’s coming to fruition. We are beating teams the way he wants. We don’t just set up one way, we chop and change formations and players to see if we can actually win the game. It’s working. It’s good to have a manager like that, who isn’t just stuck with the same 11 each week.”

It means that there is competition for places but the 29-year-old full-back believes that everyone is getting a fair chance to shine.

“I had been on the bench for a few weeks because Connor Randall had been fantastic. I haven’t got a grudge towards him as he is a great lad and we get on well. If I come in and do well he will be happy for me and that is the sort of team spirit that we have here at this club and it is great to be a part of.”

Down in the doldrums as the season kicked off, there is a buoyancy at the ground now, with the landmark win over Celtic in December – ending their 69-game domestic unbeaten run – a key moment.

Smith played at centre-back that day and was superb but he says the growing confidence is down to consistency rather than just one particular win. “It’s more the run we’re on. It’s gradually building confidence and that’s showing on the pitch. We’re starting to play a bit better football and last Saturday we scored three decent goals. Hopefully we’ll score a few more this week.”

Today they travel to face Ross County and while no-one in the squad expects an easy afternoon, they do have faith in their ability to find a way to win.

“This is a great dressing room to be around. Even the boys that came in during January have knitted in well and it is going well. It’s a massive club and we all want the same thing – to push up the table a bit more and do something with this season. We are a lot more stable and there’s a lot more friendliness and happiness about the club. That’s to do with things on the pitch.”