Exclusive: Frankie McAvoy details the standards expected at Hearts with a bold prediction on Steven Naismith
Frankie McAvoy is punching his right fist into his left palm repeatedly. He isn’t angry, far from it. This is merely a demonstrative gesture. He is emphasising Steven Naismith’s impact at Hearts and how the interim manager is applying his footballing principles.
Naismith will take charge for the fourth time in Paisley tomorrow, assisted by McAvoy, the club’s youth academy director. St Mirren away is notoriously tough but Naismith's attitude in football is to confront every challenge head on. That is already evident in three aggressive Hearts performances since he stepped up from coaching the B team.
“It’s 4-2-3-1, he wants to attack, be on the front foot, have possession, keep the ball. Those are all his traits and Naisy was that type of player,” says McAvoy. He then begins slamming that fist. The slap of skin against skin echoes around us. “He was always on the front foot [first punch], always hungry [second punch], always in about it [third punch]. I can start to see that coming through in the team and that’s credit to Naisy.”
This isn’t a new relationship, incidentally. Naismith and McAvoy worked together in England at Norwich City. Their task in Edinburgh, along with fellow coaches Gordon Forrest and Paul Gallacher, is to guide Hearts to third in the Premiership table. Naismith’s high demands as a player were notorious and he is no different as a manager.
“I was coaching at Norwich when Alex Neil was the manager and we signed Steven from Everton,” recalls McAvoy. “He’s just got a great hunger, desire and will to win. He loves winning. He has said himself that he is a wee bit moany, but that’s just the standards he sets. He is looking for really high standards.
“He has a real hunger and drive to succeed. He is new to first-team management but he’s been involved in the Scotland set-up with Steve Clarke, he’s been involved with some great teams as a player and worked under some fantastic managers. He has a good grounding. I think his ideas in terms of how he wants to play the game are great.”
Supporters have responded positively to the attacking outlook and more than 1,500 will travel west along the M8 for Saturday’s match. At this stage in the campaign, with only four league games remaining, there is more hope than expectation among the Jambo contingent that Hearts can overhaul a five-point deficit and beat Aberdeen to third place.
Naismith and McAvoy are content that their methods and messages are having an effect. A defeat against Hibs in their first game preceded a 6-1 thrashing of Ross County at Tynecastle. Last week’s meeting with Celtic at the same venue also carried plenty positive signs. Indeed, the final scoreline of 2-0 to the visitors might well have been different but for Alex Cochrane’s disputed red card late in the first half.
McAvoy gives a realistic assessment of Hearts under Naismith and clearly sees plenty long-term managerial potential in the 36-year-old. “I think it’s gone well. The first game probably came a bit too soon for Naisy to stamp his way of playing on the team. In the last two games, a lot of it came together against Ross County and, against Celtic, then you could see the clear style he wants up until the sending off.
“There has been a lot of good stuff. Every day when we come in, the lads are at it so it’s been really enjoyable. We feel we could have picked up more points over the three games, but sometimes it takes time for your styles and systems to come to fruition. The lads have really bought into it. Naisy has played at the top level, he has some great ideas and he has tried to instil that from day one. It might take time but I’m confident he will be a top manager.”
St Mirren’s 2-0 victory at Tynecastle just five weeks ago serves as perfect evidence of their danger. They have met Hearts three times previously this season – two of those at Tynecastle – and their only defeat was by a narrow 1-0 margin back in January. Manager Stephen Robinson has already achieved the club’s highest top-flight finish since the 1980s by securing a place in the Premiership’s top six.
“Gordon Forrest has seen them before, we have good analysts and we know what we are up against,” says McAvoy. “I saw St Mirren against Hibs last week and they are very direct. They have done remarkably well to get into the top six so credit to Stephen Robinson. His team are a real handful and turned Hearts over last time we played them at Tynecastle.
“We’re expecting another difficult game against a team that will be really direct and get at us. We will need to be at our best. It will be similar preparation to Ross County and we will look to stamp our authority on the game.”
A sizeable away support is always a help. Even though many Hearts displays away from Tynecastle have been disappointing during this campaign, the travelling fans are ready once again to come out in numbers and back their side. “The fans have been fantastic,” acknowledges McAvoy. “Even the games I took in when Robbie Neilson was manager, they were excellent. Hearts are a big club and the fans are always behind the team. That’s a great credit to them.”