Entering the Celtic Park cauldron inspires Steven Naismith to the point of neck hairs rising. He is ready for the abuse and vitriol headed his way tonight on his first visit to Parkhead in seven years.
Aged 31, Hearts’ on-loan striker knows he is guaranteed a verbal scalding in Glasgow’s east end. In fact, he’s counting on it. He is a former Rangers favourite who now plays with the team that ended Celtic’s 69-game unbeaten run with a 4-0 win at Tynecastle last month.
Naismith relishes the intensity of it all. When you’ve trialed at Arsenal, starred for Everton, proved yourself in England’s Premier League and at international level with Scotland, not much can rock you.
“It will be the usual welcome,” laughed Naismith. “As a footballer, I enjoy that. I’ve always enjoyed going to Celtic Park. I thrive on that type of abuse or banter, whatever you want to call it. I like it because I know that, if I can create a goal or score a goal, I have the last laugh.
“Probably there’s a chance it would unsettle me when I was younger but I still thrived in those situations. One game in particular stands out from my time at Kilmarnock. We were playing Rangers live on TV on a Sunday and it came out in the press that morning that I was going to Arsenal. That put a lot of pressure on me.
“Having that kind of spotlight, I enjoyed it. I ended up scoring a penalty in the last minute for us to draw 2-2. When I was stepping up to take that penalty, I wasn’t worrying about it. I was buzzing because it was my chance to make sure we got something from the game.
“I’ve always enjoyed things like that and I think that’s shown in my career with the goals I’ve scored and things I’ve done.”
The trip to Arsenal came just as Naismith’s career began to burgeon at Rugby Park. He was invited on trial in 2006 but had no intention of signing for one of the world’s most recognisable clubs.
“I was a kid going down to a first-team dressing room and it was a different level,” he admitted. “I was down there staying in a hotel aged 18 and I was thinking: ‘Even if they want me, I don’t think I’d sign here.’ I didn’t want to move away from home so I wouldn’t have joined Arsenal.
“When I was at Everton, we played Arsenal, I scored and we won. Coming off the pitch I shook Arsene Wenger’s hand thinking he wouldn’t have a clue who I was. Yet he acknowledged me and remembered back to that trial. It was my first sight of English football at the time. I was having lunch with Arsene Wenger as a teenager and just understanding how obsessed guys like him are with football.
“From tactics to transfers, it was an insight into what I would eventually be involved in. I had no intention of leaving Kilmarnock and moving away from home. I look at young players who do that and admire their no-worry and no-fear attitude. I still think it was the best thing I did back then.”
He has now come full circle: Kilmarnock, Rangers, Everton, Norwich City, and on loan to Hearts from Carrow Road until the summer. Naismith has impressed during his first three games back in Scotland despite not scoring. Again, that won’t unsettle him.
“In all honesty, it isn’t really on my mind. The manager told me when I came here I would play in different positions. With the squad not being the biggest, your position is going to change week-to-week. As long as we’re doing well and winning, I couldn’t really care less.
“In the three games, I have created a few chances. I was the forward in the Hamilton game last week, I didn’t have a shot on target but I had a hand in all three goals. I played a big part in two of them and that’s the main thing for me. Maybe if you’d asked a younger me the same question ten years ago, I’d probably say: ‘Goals, goals, goals.’ It’s really about the team winning, though.”
The closest he has come to finding the net so far was the opening minutes of his debut against Hibs. Naismith sprinted on to David Milinkovic’s through pass and touched the ball away from the emerging Hibs goalkeeper Ofir Marciano before rolling his shot wide.
“I thought: ‘Yes, this is the perfect start.’ Having seen it back, I’m 50/50 whether I should do better or not. I had to hit the shot quickly because Lewis Stevenson was getting back. It ended up being a bit of a snapshot.”
Hearts need to be clinical with any chances they get tonight. Northern Ireland international forward Kyle Lafferty is available for the first time in a month after serving a three-game suspension, so Naismith could find himself playing in a different position. He may even start as a substitute to help manage a touch of tendonitis he has been coping with.
His experience of these occasions, regardless how or where he is utilised, will be important to Hearts. He knows exactly what is required playing away against Celtic. Given the scoreline last time the teams met, Brendan Rodgers’ players will need no extra motivation.
“For us, this is about being disciplined and not losing focus,” stressed Naismith. “In any game I’ve played in where you’re the underdog against a bigger team, concentration is the biggest thing.
“The margins between attacking players and defending as a team aren’t drastic. This isn’t like Celtic playing a part-time team in the cup where their raw ability will just smoke the other side.
“If we concentrate and defend as a unit, it’s going to be hard for Celtic to break us down. Then we have to be confident when we get the ball. They are hoping one of us switch off so they get a chance of the first goal to change the game. If we can defend like we have done recently and be brave on the ball, we will cause them problems.”