HAVING started the season playing in Europe before falling out of the team and being farmed out to Raith Rovers, Liam Smith could be forgiven for not knowing whether he was coming or going.
However, now back in the team since injury cut short his loan in Kirkcaldy, the Hearts defender insists he has a clear idea of what his future holds.
And the 20-year-old is adamant that it does not include the departure of Scotland full-back Callum Paterson that he admits could improve his first-team chances.
Instead, Smith, who has been capped by Scotland under-21s, views Paterson – who has been linked with a possible move away in January – as a role model rather than a hinderance to his own development.
“I think I need to try to cement my place in the team,” he said ahead of Monday evening’s trip to face Hamilton Accies. “It’s a big season for me.
“People are talking about Callum maybe moving on and things like that but I can’t really look at that myself.
“I need to look at what I’m doing and to continue to work hard to show I can play in the team whether he’s there or not.
“You can look at it both ways. You can talk about if he wasn’t there I might be playing. Or I can look at it in terms of having a Scotland international to watch and learn from.
“I think it gives everyone an inspiration when you look at the journey he’s come on, from the Academy into the first-team.
“He’s played however many games in the first-team and now he’s the top right-back in the country, and he’s pushed out a player who has played in the English Premier League for so many years.
“From his point of view it’s great and, looking on and knowing him, it’s great for us to aspire to.”
Smith was propelled into Hearts’ Europa League adventure in the summer after Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson decided Paterson should be pushed forward as an auxiliary attacker.
However, Smith played in the Jambos’ last outing, the 2-2 draw with St Johnstone, despite Paterson being fielded in his usual right-back position, with the youngster slotting in to left-back instead.
He hopes it was just another way of showing Neilson he is worthy of a place in the starting line-up.
“I don’t think I can rely on him leaving or think about it,” he added. “This season has taught me that because it’s had so many twists and turns.
“If he does go I need to be ready myself to step in. Whether or not the gaffer gives me that opportunity, it’s up to me to work hard and show that I am ready to step in.”