AS AWARDS season approaches apace, Hearts defender Michael Smith has afforded an insight into where his vote will lie, while barely concealing his delight at not being asked to shackle that man again.
“Ryan Kent is my player of the year,” Smith said after a moment’s consideration. “I can’t think of anyone else who has been as consistently good so I would vote for him.”
That viewpoint perhaps reflects his personal experience this term.
Kent was irrepressible at Ibrox in the Jambos’ first meeting with Rangers this season, opening the scoring as the hosts roared to a 3-1 win in October. Smith was sent off after 55 tortuous minutes against the tricky winger.
The on-loan Liverpool youngster was similarly impressive in the 3-0 triumph in Govan earlier this month, albeit injury restricted Smith to a watching brief that day.
As a consequence, the 30-year-old has no qualms about labelling Kent’s enforced absence due to suspension as a major boost for Hearts, just as the unavailability of the Gers’ top scorer Alfredo Morelos will be.
“I’ve come up against Kent directly and he’s a great player,” added Smith. “His speed, his charge of direction, his acceleration.
“He’s as good as anyone I’ve ever played against and as a winger he’s got what you need to get past players.
“Morelos scores goals although he has a disciplinary record that is not great. But they are two fantastic players and if they are not playing it gives us a better chance, definitely.”
One man who is likely to play a key role for Rangers in Gorgie is Steven Davis, a lynchpin of the Northern Ireland set-up and an individual for whom Smith has nothing but admiration.
Smith is adamant Davis, capped 108 times for his nation, treats his position as captain with the utmost reverence, welcoming new faces such as Jambos kid Bobby Burns into the fold with open arms.
Nevertheless, the Tynecastle full-back is determined to ensure his compatriot endures a less hospitable reception in Edinburgh.
“It will be good to play against Davo and catch up with him,” continued Smith. “He’s a cracking player and he’s now starting to settle and play his best football there.
“It’s taken him a little time to adjust after coming from the English Premier League but he’s now back in really good form.
“He’s a great captain for Northern Ireland and, in terms of ability, he’s one of the best players I’ve ever played with.
“Davo is just a great guy on and off the pitch. He’s one of the first faces you see when you go away with Northern Ireland. Wee Bobby [Burns] turned up for his first squad a few months ago was welcomed by Davo, as he does with all the new boys. He’s great to have around the place.
“If you’ve any problems you go to him and he will go to the manager.”
The visit of Rangers represents a return to league action for a Hearts side still basking in the glow of booking their place in the Scottish Cup final.
It will be impossible to stop the minds of supporters from wandering towards the May 25 showpiece against Celtic, but Smith has vowed that will not happen in the dressing room.
He contends that Hearts have not given up on qualifying for Europe through their Premiership placing and, while the cup final is a carrot; a boost, it will not be a distraction.
“Getting to the cup final is nice and it will give everyone a lift going into these last five games,” added Smith. “But we can’t stop playing football.
“We have to go out and give our all against these so-called big teams. We are eight points away from fourth place but we still have to try and get there and get into Europe that way.
“If you are in the team now the challenge is to stay perform well in the league right up to the cup final starting XI. It’s down to us as players to go out and be consistent so the gaffer does pick us. We will be going out and giving our all.”
From a personal perspective, Smith has eased back into the Hearts side with such effortlessness that it is easy to forget he recently endured a two-month injury lay-off.
He picked up a thigh tear against Auchinleck Talbot in February but returned to action in Hearts’ Edinburgh derby defeat earlier this month without even playing a minute of reserve football to build his fitness.
“I was fuming when I got injured against Auchinleck in the cup,” recalled Smith. “I’ve just had to work hard to get back. I was aiming for the Hibs game and I made it.
“The gaffer needed my experience so I played and I came through it well. After 90 minutes on Saturday [against Inverness], I’m 100 per cent for the Rangers game.”