Of the extensive recruitment undertaken by Hearts this summer, Steven Naismith’s return on a season-long loan from Norwich stands out as Craig Levein’s marquee signing.
It’s been about quantity as well as quality for the Jambos, with 11 new faces added to the squad thus far. Of those, Naismith boasts by far and away the best pedigree
Fellow loanees Demetri Mitchell and David Milinkovic also impressed in maroon earlier this year. While Hearts remain hopeful of left-back Mitchell returning for another loan from Manchester United, fans’ favourite Milinkovic won’t be back after he and the club were too far apart during negotiations.
In that sense, Naismith’s return will provide a real lift to the Hearts support. For the player himself, as was the case in January, playing his football in EH11 continues to tick a lot of boxes both on and off the pitch, hence the “easy” decision to come back.
“Yes, that was probably why,” he said. “It was a difficult situation to be in; when you are a youngster it is all about driving to get to the best you can and play at the best level and make the most money you can. As you get older those things are less at the high end of the list compared to your family life and what you get out of football. Coming here in January fitted everything and when I sat down with the manager at the end of the season there was not anything really where I was saying, ‘I didn’t expect it to be like this’.
“There were no negatives and that was partly to do with how he manages us older players and also with what the club gives back in terms of facilities, the stadium, players and what they want your role to be. It was a pretty easy decision. It was more about being thankful to Norwich and Hearts for getting it done so quickly.”
First and foremost, Naismith is focused on performing. Hearts are arguably in their best ever position in terms of the infrastructure of the club off the pitch, while the commitment to nurturing young talent, helped along by the likes of Naismith, remains steadfast.
While all positives, top of the agenda is re-establishing himself as a key player in a new-look Hearts squad. “[The project] is a secondary thing; obviously the first thing is the football and you have to focus on it,” said Naismith. “I have enjoyed it. The level of English football to Scottish football is not the same, but both have their pros and cons.
“Coming back here and seeing all the youngsters was refreshing. Now the dynamic has changed; there is more competition from older boys. So it will be good to see how these youngsters react and who seizes the opportunity in the first-team. It also gives us a better base going into games when you are not relying on too many youngsters and you need a bit more experience.
“It’s been hard, there are that many new faces and you’re shaking so many hands that you forget names!
“It was needed, there was a big gap in the squad and it was unfair on the young players. On one hand they’re buzzing because they’re in the squad and they’re getting game-time but when you look at the bigger picture it’s probably not as good for them because some of the results were bad and they were getting a hard time for not performing.
“When I was that age I found it tough, so it was needed and it’s a chance for them now to say, ‘I want to be part of this’, and step up to the plate.
“The new guys seem hungry, they’re all keen to stamp their authority on what they can bring to the squad that will be good for us as a whole.”
Less of a reliance on youth, Naismith believes, will ease the burden on the senior players as well. “It brings probably a more consistent level,” he said. “These guys you tend to find are going to give you five performance out of six, seven eight that will be of a level that’s acceptable.
“With youngsters and when I was young you’re up and down. It’s important to start the season well, pick up some results and momentum.”
From a fitness perspective, Naismith feels in a position to do so having had to contend with a few niggles after arriving initially back in January. “This is much better,” he said. “I had a week in Norwich this summer so I’ve not really missed much, I just missed the type of running they were doing down the beach. I came back in good condition at Norwich and I’ve had a week of intense training anyway.
“It is much more about being with the squad and learning about them then playing catch-up with fitness and match fitness and there are games scheduled in that I will be involved in.
“I still feel good. I did it earlier than probably most but I learned from Sylvain Distin at Everton. He played until he was 36. I was maybe 27 at that point and he started to get a routine and that was his routine all year round. It wasn’t when you’re younger – ‘holiday time, don’t do anything for five weeks’. I’ve stuck to that and feel very good.
“It’s more about maintenance through the year more than anything else and I still want to play for Scotland. The manager wanted me to go away in the summer, but I had a niggle with my Achilles that I wanted to right for the summer rather than gamble on it. If I can start the season well I definitely look to be involved if I can be.”