Five days on, and Gary Naysmith is still basking in the afterglow of his proudest accomplishment in football.
For a man who won a Scottish Cup with Hearts as a teenager, spent seven years as a player with Everton in England’s top flight and won 46 Scotland caps, it is somewhat surprising to hear him talking in such glowing terms about leading little East Fife to the League Two title.
Naysmith is speaking from the heart, however. Since taking over from Willie Aitchison as manager two-and-a-half years ago – just weeks after stepping up to replace Robbie Neilson as assistant player-manager – the 37-year-old Loanhead boy has been gripped by the role. Relegation from League One in his first half-season, followed by play-off despair last term had him wondering if he would survive in the job. But East Fife kept faith in this devoted and driven young coach and were rewarded with a title triumph, which was secured last weekend, away to Clyde, with two games to spare.
“It’s the biggest achievement I’ve had,” he said. “When you think about how you put the team together and that it’s your team out on the pitch and you’re the focal point for the whole club, it’s totally different to just looking after yourself and being part of a team as a player. People will say I played for Scotland and won the Scottish Cup with Hearts and things like that but I don’t think people realise how hard it is to win that league with the budget that we had, especially with a couple of games to spare. The only thing that might come close is making my debut for Scotland because that’s your ultimate aim as a young boy, but this is a massive achievement for me.”
Naysmith knows that he might not have been wallowing in last weekend’s glory had things gone to plan for him two seasons ago. When Hearts were in administration, he was being lined up as a potential free-agent signing by Gary Locke early in the 2013/14 campaign. While waiting for Hearts’ signing embargo to be lifted, Naysmith moved to East Fife to keep his match fitness up. In the end, the transfer ban wasn’t lifted quickly enough and he ended up replacing Neilson as player-coach at Bayview when the current Hearts head coach got the call to move to Riccarton as under-20 coach. Weeks later Naysmith was appointed player-manager after Aitchison was ousted.
“I initially went to East Fife to get some games because I was hopeful of signing for Hearts as a player,” he explained. “But once I was there, we got told Hearts probably wouldn’t be able to sign anyone and East Fife offered me a chance to take the reserve team. Then when Robbie went to Hearts, they asked me to be player-assistant manager and then soon after that Willie was out the door and I became caretaker manager. Although I’d been thinking about becoming a manager, it kind of fell into my lap.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing for Naysmith. He has had to work tirelessly to overhaul a previously ailing club while also dealing with setbacks and critics along the way. “I took over when they were struggling and I couldn’t keep them up,” he recalls. “I got rid of nearly everybody – there’s only three players left that I inherited. We had players on big wages, and some full-time players. I know what people were trying to do but it was never going to work. We had to get all that under control. We never had a winter training facility, a scouting system, a video analyst so we had to put all that in place. There were so many things missing that you would associate with a successful club so we had to totally rebuild the club behind the scenes as well as try to keep the team competitive. We finished fourth last year and then this year we’ve managed to win the league. It’s probably taken two years to build a title-winning team, so I’m quite happy with that. It’s not all about me though, my backroom staff have been a massive help and I also have to thank the board for giving me time to build the club. They could have panicked last year when we didn’t go up but they must have seen something they liked in me. It was pleasing on Saturday because, when we got back to Bayview, there were a lot of fans who were honest enough to say ‘I wasn’t sure if you were the right man, but you’ve turned it round and we’re grateful that you stayed’. It’s good to have changed the opinions of people who maybe doubted me.”
Although his stock is now high enough to have his name linked with higher-profile jobs, such as the Queen of the South vacancy, Naysmith is in no rush to jump ship. “I’m just taking it as it comes just now but I was ambitious as a player and I’m ambitious as a manager,” he said. “I want to become a full-time manager at the highest level I can. I’m happy with the way I’ve done it. I always wanted to start at a lower-level club where I’m involved in everything. I take the bibs and that home and wash them, have an input in the players’ kit, sort players’ tickets. I’m involved in anything you can think of related to the football side. I like that responsibility. I’m not going to be pushing to get out of East Fife. I’m happy here and I feel like I owe them something because they gave me my first chance and stood by me last season. It’s also the best part-time club in Scotland. Our pitch got voted the best in Scotland and we train at the new Oriam Sports Centre where Hearts are based. We’re only a part-time club but we’ve got the best facilities in Scotland. I’m certainly in no rush to leave here.”
East Fife’s success holds extra poignancy for Naysmith as it has come at a time when his father Andrew has been ravaged by motor neurone disease. After securing the title, he donned a t-shirt with the words “This one’s for you Dad” scrawled on it. “It’s been really tough because, as well as combining management with playing, I’ve also had to deal with having my dad diagnosed with motor neurone-disease,” he said. “I was really keen to get the league wrapped up for him. I had the t-shirt on dedicated to him because I wanted to make him aware that I was thinking of him. He’s housebound so he wasn’t able to make it to the game but he was aware what we had done. It’s been really difficult for him in the last few months so it made winning the league extra special for me. The players were aware of it and I asked them to get it won as quickly as possible for my dad. I was delighted that they managed to do it.”