The Steven Naismith effect has defined Hearts’ season so far.
With their talismanic top scorer in the team, they won eight of their first ten matches to surge six points clear at the top of the Ladbrokes Premiership. Since losing him to injury in the Betfred Cup semi-final at the end of October, they have won only one of their past eight league games and plummeted to fifth in the table. There is evidence aplenty to suggest, therefore, that his return to action against Aberdeen today should have a galvanising effect on his beleaguered team.
“I’m not guaranteeing we’ll win because he’s coming back into the team,” said manager Craig Levein. “But I feel better about it, which helps me sleep at night. It feels like we’re getting more than just one player back. It feels like we’re adding a very good footballer – plus a player who cajoles, helps and keeps everybody on their toes. He’s incessant. He actually does my head in sometimes! He’s just barking all the time. And that’s great for me because I don’t have to do it. Me having a go is different from having one player constantly – and I mean constantly – on the case of all the other players. And that’s what he does. Constantly.”
Levein believes Hearts are getting their driving force back. “He’s almost the heartbeat of the team,” said the manager. “He leads by example and how he plays. And he talks, which is very unusual for football players these days. You get very few players who actually talk on the field. He will bring us more than one player. He’ll bring us one-and-a-half players. Or 1.75 players!
“He makes our team better. Whether it’s our players knowing he’s in the team or whether the opposition look and say ‘aw, Steven Naismith’s back’. When I was a player and particularly early in my management career, I’d look at the other team’s line-up and see they’re missing two or three of their best players and that gave us a little bit of a boost. Him being off the team sheet gives the opposition a boost and us a little bit of a dunt.”
Hearts have failed to score in six of their past nine games without Naismith, who performed to inspirational effect both in midfield and attack before his injury.
“It’s no secret that we’ve struggled to score goals,” said Levein. “We need a bridge. We’ve not got that bridge just now and he provides that, a link between the midfield and up front. It’s like getting a bit of our identity back. We’re getting there.”
Levein is optimistic that Naismith’s return, allied to a desire to banish memories of the 5-0 defeat at Livingston, will help Hearts today. “The training’s been frantic this week,” he said. “People trying really hard. Not a lot of quality but that part of it is more important to me. The players want to make up for what happened last week.
“We’re facing a stiff task going up to Aberdeen, but we’ve gone up there in recent seasons when we’ve been struggling and managed to dig out a result. I don’t know if we’ve won recently but we’ve certainly had a couple of draws.”
Although disappointed with Hearts’ recent nosedive, Levein is heartened by the fact they remain within six points of top spot at a time when their most important players are starting to return from lengthy absences. “This season is so weird,” said the manager. “This time normally, Celtic are, or have been in recent seasons, quite far clear and everybody else is jockeying for position. This year, everybody seems to have a shot at being at the top or near the top.
“We started well and we’ve fallen away. Hibs started poorly and are coming a little bit stronger. Aberdeen are the same. Kilmarnock had a poor start and they’ve picked up. Celtic have been more unpredictable than normal and Rangers under Steven Gerrard are a new team almost, so you’re waiting to see what they’re going to do. It’s resulted in this kind of big pile of teams sitting just off the top.
“We’ve hardly picked up any points recently but we’re still right in the mix. So I feel really good. Steven’s coming back, Christophe’s back and we’ll get the other boys back. People will say ‘it’s been unlucky, we’ve lost good players’ but what hasn’t happened is somebody hasn’t shot away and almost won the league by January, which has happened in the past. But we’re still in there and that’s the thing that’s really pleasing.”