BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
Hearts defender Liam Smith admits he is pinching himself after completing a remarkable ascent from East Fife to the Europa League in the space of just 14 months.
Following such an improbable journey to date, it is little wonder that the gifted youngster is allowing himself to tentatively dream about the prospect of crossing swords with Euro 2016 superstar Dimitri Payet.
Smith was dispatched to East Fife during the 2014/15 campaign, under the watchful eye of former Jambo Gary Naysmith, to experience the bruising realities of first-team football against the grizzled opponents of League 2.
It is a formative experience he cites as pivotal in his development and, indeed, he has gone from strength to strength after his stint in Methil, making 11 appearances for Hearts last term and receiving his maiden Scotland under-21 call-up in March.
Another major career goal was ticked off in Tallinn on Wednesday evening when he made his European debut, turning in a confident display in a convincing 4-2 win over FC Infonet.
“To play in a game like that wasn’t something I was expecting at this stage – I was surprised – but I feel like I took my opportunity well,” Smith reflected. “It was a really proud moment for me and maybe not something that will come round every year.
“I’m still only 20 and it is something really special to have on my CV going forward.
“It wasn’t too long ago that I was playing for East Fife, and they were brilliant for me – that was absolutely massive in my development. If I hadn’t made that move then I don’t think I would have pushed on they way I have.
“Playing against men every week and getting used to the physical side of the game was a real learning curve. You don’t get down that in the under-20s and it is an experience you need.
“There are a lot of players in League 2 who have played at a high level, are maybe coming to the end of their careers, and they know the game. You grow up quickly.
“I managed to do well there and obviously did enough to convince the gaffer to give me few games last season, but I want to keep improving and get more games for the first-team.”
A trip to the searing island of Malta is up next for the Jambos on Thursday evening when they face an exceedingly competent Birkirkara side in the second qualifying round.
Should they progress, the likes of Lille, Spartak Moscow and Payet’s West Ham United await in the next round, where Hearts would be unseeded.
It is a tantalising prospect which is only intensified by the tales of facing Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool he has heard from teammates, past and present.
“Playing against Dmitri Payet? Well, he’s absolutely torn up the Euros so it would definitely be a challenge!” he smiled. “It would be amazing to come up against someone like that.
“You always want to play against the best and test yourself at the highest level possible.
“I’ve heard the boys talking about playing at Anfield and White Hart Lane and they all say it is one of the best experiences they have had in their careers. Hopefully, we could get something like that during this campaign.
“It is a really exciting prospect for everyone involved. That’s why we worked so hard to get here – you want to progress as far as possible and come up against some big clubs. But we need to deal with this round first and it won’t be easy.”
Indeed, Smith, an old head on young shoulders, knows better than to underestimate Birkirkara, or the challenge of the stifling heat, ahead of the tie against Drazen Besek’s men.
“It will be a different test, but we will be ready for it, given how thorough the gaffer and the video analysis team are,” he added.
“The heat will be a challenge, we need to cope with that as well. I’m hearing they had to have a water break during the [Siroki Birjeg] game in the first round and it was 35 degrees. That will be something new for everybody.
“But hopefully we handle that and come away with a good result from the first leg.”