MICHAEL SMITH has described Hearts’ 5-0 humbling at the hands of Livingston as his darkest day in football.
And the experienced defender is adamant the Jambos squad owe it to themselves and the club’s supporters to make amends for that wretched showing when they return to West Lothian today.
Smith, 31, still shudders when he recalls the ‘collapse’ last December, insisting that a swathe of players ‘hid’ as the hosts ran riot in a staggering final 20 minutes.
Goals from Craig Halkett, now a Hearts player, Dolly Menga, Shaun Byrne and a Ryan Hardie brace did the damage, while Arnaud Djoum was dismissed on a disastrous, chastening evening.
It is all the fuel Smith needs as they prepare for the short journey west.
“Does that still hurt? Yeah,” he nods. “It’s one of our darkest days as a team and I think it was my darkest day in football.
“It was a terrible night for us. We didn’t play well at all and just collapsed. I wouldn’t say we owe them on – but we owe it to ourselves to go there and compete a lot better, and we owe the fans a better performance than the last time.
“We’ll certainly be remembering that scoreline when we go there.
“We collapsed and we hid. Once they scored and Arnaud [Djoum] was sent off, from that point it was like The Alamo. We just couldn’t get out and couldn’t seem to do anything about it. Maybe we should have tried to keep the score down and get out of there with a 2-0.
“However, it happened and, although I wouldn’t say we are better for it, you remember results like that and it stands you in good stead for other performances.”
The defeat was so humbling that the Hearts squad agreed to cancel Christmas, immediately scrapping a planned weekend in Prague in favour of extra training following candid talks on the team bus.
“We had a meeting on the bus straight after the game and said ‘there’s no way we can go after that’,” recalls Smith.
“It would have looked bad and we wanted to get some extra training in. It was an easy decision to make.
“I wouldn’t have been in the right mood to go away and have a fun weekend after that.”
Even Hearts’ most experienced player, 90-times caped Ireland midfielder Glenn Whelan, has been served with advanced warning of what to expect.
Smith added: “I was saying to Whelo [Glenn Whelan] on Thursday morning that this will be one of the toughest games he’s had in Scotland – if not the toughest.”
While Hearts are still toiling in 10th place in the Premiership following a wholly uninspiring start to the campaign, a hard-fought draw against Rangers last season has fostered a sense of positivity this week.
The Jambos have also produced positive performances in crunch fixtures against city rivals Hibernian and in their Betfred Cup quarter-final against Aberdeen.
Smith now believes the challenge is to reach those levels in less high-profile outings.
“You don’t need to say much to get up for big games,” continued Smith. “That’s probably why we’ve performed in those.
“So, it’s now about getting the mentality to get that against all teams; the so-called lesser teams. You need to be just as – if not more – up for it. You know they will be aggressive and hungry to win the game. Your mentality needs to be even better for those games.”
Smith, meanwhile, is likely to continue in the heart of defence at the Tony Macaroni Arena this afternoon as he continues to display his priceless versatility in a role which he relishes.
The Northern Ireland internationalist was magnificent against the Gers and has been one of Hearts’ top performers, whether at full-back or centre-half, all season.
“I just let the bigger boys head it and I’ll sweep in behind!” laughed Smith.
“No, I enjoy it. I read the game well and feel like I’m more part of the game when I’m in the middle. I can talk to my teammates more and keep them right. I feel like it’s a bigger role.
“When I was playing for my Boys’ Club I always played sweeper. I was too small – four-foot-nothing – so I couldn’t play anywhere else. Maybe it just comes from that, being back there are learning to read the game.”