Steven Naismith believes Hearts are benefitting from Craig Levein’s knowledge of Scottish football allied to the manager’s ability to deliver “crystal clear” instructions to his players.
The 53-year-old has spent the majority of his life acclimatising himself with the Scottish football scene as a player, manager and director of football.
And according to Naismith, who was voted Ladbrokes Premiership player of the month for September, Levein’s ability to impart his wisdom is a key factor in why Hearts, two points clear at the top of the table ahead of today’s Tynecastle showdown with Aberdeen, have become such a strong team under his leadership.
“I think he’s as good a manager as you’ll get at this level, especially in Scotland where he knows it inside out,” said the 32-year-old. “It’s something that comes with age. Coming back from Scotland duty, when you just chat to him about the couple of weeks you’re away or about the start of the season, he makes points that you’re not thinking about.
“He’s doing that because he’s had a lifetime of experience of it. The biggest compliment I can pay the gaffer is he’s very honest and makes things as crystal clear as possible to the players.
“We know exactly what we’re going to do in each game.”
Naismith played under Levein during his time in charge of Scotland between 2009 and 2012. Reflecting on how the manager has evolved since then, Hearts’ top scorer said: “As a manager he’s changed because he’s not as hands-on. With Scotland he was a lot more hands-on day to day. Here he takes a back seat during the week and doesn’t do as much coaching, he lets the younger guys in the coaching staff do that and it works really well. He’s very shrewd in all aspects of what he does, from transfers to whatever.”
Personality-wise, Naismith hasn’t found any major transformation in his former international manager since being reunited with him at club level earlier this year.
“I would say he’s much the same,” said Naismith. “I’ve never found him to be a character that is 100 miles per hour or very loud and aggressive towards the players. He’s always kind of chilled out, sensible, never really too high or never really too low.
“We benefited from that at the start of the season because we had a lot of highs and people get carried away but he’s just kept it on a level playing field.”
Naismith explained that another of Levein’s qualities is that he commands the respect of the Hearts players in a manner similar to his former manager, Walter Smith.
“I think it’s a presence thing,” said Naismith. “When I was at Rangers, Walter Smith would get involved in the banter but then if you’re in the gym before training and he walks in then you know the gaffer’s there. There’s just this feeling. He doesn’t need to say anything but you just know he’s there.
“The gaffer here’s got that. He doesn’t need to say much because people take note when he walks in the room and when he is talking.”
Levein’s influence has helped put Naismith’s career back on track after a frustrating spell of inactivity at parent club Norwich City. The 32-year-old admits he wasn’t up to speed when he first arrived on loan in the second half of last season, but, after a few months of playing regularly, he has emerged as the talisman of this table-topping Hearts side while also reclaiming his place in the Scotland team.
“I’m back to normal or what has felt normal for the majority of my career,” said the former Kilmarnock, Rangers and Everton attacker. “The routine is the same and you start feeling good again. When I came up in January I had this period of two or three months where you are just grinding through. You are not at your sharpest and you’re picking small, niggly injuries up which is down to just sitting around for six months, not playing, just training where the intensity is not the same and going from that to having a burst of maybe three games in a week. That takes its toll and you have to then start managing that. But now it has felt seamless.”