Derbies in Glasgow, Liverpool and East Anglia taught Steven Naismith that fortune favours the brave in such fixtures. His advice to Hearts is to get their maroon chests puffed out and go for it at Easter Road this evening.
The visitors are seriously up against it with odds stacked firmly in Hibs’ favour. A mounting injury list and indifferent recent results leave Hearts firmly as underdogs for the trip across Edinburgh. That’s before you remember Hibs have lost only one of their last nine Ladbrokes Premiership matches – and one of the last ten against Hearts.
At 31, Naismith has seen it all before with Kilmarnock, Rangers, Everton and Norwich City. He believes derbies are decided by courage, nerve, audacity and boldness. Regardless of their circumstances, he wants to see all of the above from Hearts tonight.
“There are a lot of similarities between the Edinburgh derby, the Old Firm derby and the Merseyside derby,” Naismith explains to the Evening News. “You can sense there is more riding on it than just three points or a place in the next round of the cup.
“When you’ve got younger players playing, it probably stops the quality of play being as high as it could be. That just comes from people being brave enough to take the ball and thinking, ‘I’m going to win this game,’ rather than, ‘I don’t want to make a mistake’.
“In most derbies, that’s probably the difference. Form and the quality of the squads goes out of the window and it’s about who is willing to be brave enough to execute the gameplan best and decide, ‘I’m going to win this for my team’.
“It definitely becomes easier when you’re more experienced. Having said that, plenty young kids have come in and taken a derby by the scruff of the neck. These are the guys who predominantly go and to have very successful careers.
“We’ve worked really hard on how we’re going to play tonight. We know what we want to do with the ball and without the ball. We firmly believe we can get something and we’re confident.”
Facing adversity can also motivate a group of players, particularly entering the home of their biggest rivals. Hearts could be without almost half a team tonight with Arnaud Djoum, Demetri Mitchell, Jamie Brandon and Rory Currie all out injured and doubts surrounding Christophe Berra, John Souttar and David Milinkovic.
“It can galvanise you. It also gives boys coming into the team an opportunity to become a hero with the fans,” Naismith points out. “You can be held in high regard if you do well in a game like this. There are a lot of opportunities despite the upheaval, concerns and doubts surrounding the game.
“Hibs are a good footballing side who want to dominate the game. We’re well aware of that. They have some quality players who are enthusiastic and hungry, not just to stay at Hibs, but to push on and move their careers further forward. On the other side, we have a group of experienced boys who know what it takes in these games. It will be a good battle.”
Suggestions that Hearts’ season rests on tonight’s result have been put forward since Sunday’s Scottish Cup exit at Fir Park.
“Take everything surrounding it away, it’s a game you want to win. It’s your closest rivals,” says Naismith. “You want to win it but also enjoy it. Going out of the cup was disappointing, especially in the manner we did. We didn’t manage the game well enough but you also have to take a look at the bigger picture regarding where the club has come from.
“It’s been tough times here in the last few years and we still have lots to play for. We want to push on and get in that top six, but it’s definitely not a case of the season is over if we don’t win tonight.”
Nonetheless, a defeat would leave Hearts 12 points behind Hibs in the table even before that game in hand. The Tynecastle side are keen not to set unrealistic targets so close to the end of the campaign.
They had, not so long ago, coveted European football and saw it as an achievable aim. Now it is more a case of ensuring a spot in the top six as bare minimum.
“Firstly, you’ve got to just look at getting in the top six,” says Naismith. “Teams have games in hand, Kilmarnock have gone above us in the table and it’s very tight. If we score our penalty in the last minute against Kilmarnock at home last week, then it looks a bit different. It just shows how small the margins are.
“It will stay like that until the split. At the moment, that’s got to be our aim – get in the top six. Then the last five games are against the best in the country. They are the games I find really enjoyable. I don’t think you can look too far ahead yet.”
Easter Road holds little fear for the Scotland forward even though Hearts have not won there since Callum Paterson scored twice in a 2-1 victory in April 2014.
Naismith, whose loan deal from Norwich City expires at the end of the season, is able to call upon plenty positive experiences in Leith. He also has a useful knack of rising to the fore in derby matches on both sides of the Border.
“I’ve had not a bad record of scoring in derbies. I’ve scored my fair share of goals at Easter Road for Kilmarnock and Rangers, plus I scored for Scotland against Canada there last year. It’s a stadium I enjoy,” he says.
“It has a nice big pitch so I relish this game rather than worry about it. That’s my overriding emotion rather than anything else.”
If Hearts are to take anything from this Capital meeting, the experience and bravery of people like Steven Naismith will be vital. He is certain to be handed a key role in manager Craig Levein’s gameplan this evening.