“I think this is the strongest squad I’ve played in without a doubt” – Michael Smith

Michael Smith met the media ahead of Hearts’ Scottish Premiership match against Aberdeen this Sunday. Jamie McIntosh reports.

(Photo Credit – Ross MacDonald/SNS Group)

Hearts are back in cinch Premiership action this Sunday as they welcome Aberdeen to Tynecastle.

The Jambos have won their opening two league games by a 2-1 scoreline against Celtic and St. Mirren respectively. 

Defender Michael Smith, who is now playing as a right wing back in Hearts’ new system, is happy with their start in the new campaign:

“We’ve started reasonably well. The league has started really well, two wins out of two. Obviously Sunday was a bit of a blip, they came out first half and kind of steamrolled us.

“It’s always going to be tough at Celtic Park, but we have to get that out of our heads and look forward to the game on Sunday and hopefully pick up another positive result.”

Hearts were played off the park by the Hoops in the first half and improved after changing shape at half time, but Smith described the first half as a “mess”:

“We did say we were going to get after them. But when the game started they pinned us back and we were basically a flat five because their wide players were staying so wide and penning the wing backs in, we couldn’t get out to their full backs, and it was all just a bit of a mess until we got in at half time and sorted it all out. 

“There was a realisation that we sort of rolled over and died in the first half and that’s not acceptable for any Hearts team to do that. We’re ready for Sunday now and we’re looking for a massive reaction.

“It’ll be a great game. Games against Aberdeen are always a wee bit fiery, at Tynecastle with a full house, it’s going to be a great atmosphere, we’ll look to go out and assert ourselves.”

Hearts see Aberdeen as a top four rival, so the game should be an entertaining and tight affair. Smith explained that everyone is aiming to be challenging the Old Firm and the top-flight is as competitive as ever but believes this current Hearts squad is the strongest since his arrival in Gorgie:

“It’s great to be back in the top league, you want to challenge yourself. Everyone is expected to play second fiddle to the Old Firm, but it’s up to us to the rest of us to catch up and compete for the rest of the European places.

“I think it’ll be a really, really tough season this year, but I think this is the strongest Hearts squad we’ve had since I’ve been here, so we’re looking forward to the challenge.”

Hearts will welcome back all of their 12,500+ season ticket holders, after being granted a capacity crowd by the City of Edinburgh Council.

“We’ve had some good days, but we’ve also had some bad days at Tynecastle, so we need to get a good home run going that’ll hopefully keep us up the top end of the table,” Smith explained. 

“Teams do find it tough coming here [Tynecastle]. Even after speaking to Craig [Gordon] that was one of their [Celtic’s] biggest games, Hearts away. 

“We have had some great performances at home and hopefully we can have some more this year, starting on Sunday.”

Tynecastle can be a great place to play when you’re playing well, but like at any ground, the fans can get on your back when you’re not and Smith recalled the disastrous 2019/20 season which eventually ended with Hearts being demoted to the Championship:

“It’s hard when you’re in a bit of a lull. You can understand fans getting frustrated when things weren’t going well on and off the pitch. It was just a bit of a messy year for us, it was hard to take, but it certainly adds fire into people’s bellies that were here that year and we can use that as experience and learn from it.”

Hearts have recruited well this summer and Robbie Neilson has already admitted Hearts remain on the lookout for more additions, however Smith believes the quality of the current squad means every player must perform well in order to keep their starting 11 spot:

“The competitiveness in training is brilliant. That’s just the way football is. If the gaffer doesn’t fancy you, then you’re out the team and you’re away. It’s down to you to put good performances in and stay in the team. 

“Even though we’re good friends in the changing room, you want to take someone’s shirt or keep the shirt, that’s just the way football is. Everyone understands the industry we’re in, it’s cut-throat, but you can’t take things to heart.

“No one is safe. If you don’t put in performances then you’ll be gone. Good players have left because they’ve dipped in form. You’re always looking over your shoulder, you’re always trying to do your best and prepare right. 

“It’s a huge club and everyone wants to be here and fight for their place.”

In previous windows, the turnover of players at Hearts has been astronomical, but that isn’t the case this year and Smith says the smaller squad has its advantages:

“The boys we’ve brought in look real good additions, they’ll help us along the way. We’ve got John [Souttar] back in and he’s playing really well, so he adds to it as well. 

“We’ll keep bringing a few players in here and there and drip feeding them in, but yeah for me personally, I think this is the strongest squad I’ve played in without a doubt. 

“It’s a smaller squad than in recent years, but sometimes that can help us. We’ve got smaller numbers in training; we can concentrate on things better instead of training with 25 or 30 players.

“It’s better this year. Everyone understands if you’re not in the team then you work hard to get in the team and if you’re in the team, try stay in the team.”

Looking ahead to Sunday’s match, Smith was particularly complimentary of Aberdeen’s summer signing Jay Emmanuel Thomas, or JET.

“They’ll definitely be a threat,” Smith said.

“I’ve played against JET before. I think he’ll do really well there, he’s a big powerful lad and he’s started really well there. We all know their strengths and weaknesses and we’ll be looking to exploit that, but they’ll be a real threat. 

“He was at Bristol City, I think. They got promoted that year from League 1 and he was on fire that year, but I think he scored one against us from 40 yards. 

“I think Aberdeen will suit him, but I hope we can keep him quiet and get the result we want on Sunday.”

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