Craig Levein insists Hearts forward Steven Naismith will handle the backlash coming his way when he returns to Ibrox for the first time tomorrow.
The Scotland internationalist can expect a hostile reception from Rangers fans after leaving when the club were liquidated in 2012 and then referring to them as a new entity.
Levein is adamant he will cope with the pressure. The manager stressed that his only concern is whether the 31-year-old’s hamstring injury has healed sufficiently for him to play in Glasgow. Rangers supporters remain sensitive over Naismith’s departure and are certain to target him if he features for Hearts. He won three league titles before Rangers’ financial collapse but upset fans by walking out on a contract which still had three years to run. Along with team-mates Steven Whittaker and Steven Davis, Naismith objected to his contract being automatically transferred to Charles Green’s so-called newco and stated publicly that his loyalty was with the old Rangers.
He invoked TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment)) regulations to leave Ibrox in summer 2012 and join Everton. Rangers then had to rebuild by starting in Scotland’s bottom division in season 2012/13.
Naismith has since expressed regret over his comments and, six years later, is now preparing to return to Ibrox with Hearts. He joined the Tynecastle side on loan from Norwich City last month.
Levein said he hadn’t given Naismith’s Rangers history much consideration but backed the player to stand up to any criticism.
“I haven’t even thought about that. Part of the reason I think we can go to Ibrox with players like Naismith and [Kyle] Lafferty is that they handle everything. They’ve played in bigger arenas than this,” commented Levein.
“Steven is an experienced player and, really, I don’t even know what the whole thing is about. It won’t faze him at all. In all honesty, it’s not even been in my head. It’s just about whether his hamstring is at a point where it can get through the game without further injury.
“We’ve got 12 [league] games to go and having him out for a long period of time is the thing that worries me more than anything. If he is fit to play, I know I can pitch him in without him worrying about anything. He’s experienced enough to handle anything.
“These players are not fazed by the game, they’re not nervous or worried about playing at the venue. They just go into the match thinking: ‘I’m going to be at the top of my game today.’ They’ll take the ball under pressure. When an opportunity arises, there’s no fear.”