Hearts are moving closer to striking a deal to keep Steven Naismith, with manager Craig Levein hinting that a prospective package for the talismanic attacker may involve a coaching role.
The 32-year-old Scotland internationalist, who is currently injured, is due to become a free agent at the end of the season when his loan at Hearts and his contract with parent club Norwich City expire simultaneously.
The Tynecastle club have been in talks with Naismith for several months aimed at trying to sign him on a permanent contract, and Levein reported positive developments to that effect ahead of tomorrow’s Premiership showdown with Rangers at Tynecastle.
“We’ve made another step forward this week and have another meeting set for next week,” said the manager. “We are making progress. There are quite a lot of things to talk about. It is normal that things go back and forward. A lot of times I will then need to go back and speak to Ann [Budge] about them, which is another meeting. It seems to go on for a lengthy period of time, but I do feel like we are making progress.”
After making the observation that “in time, he would be a really good manager”, Levein was asked whether there would be a coaching brief within Naismith’s prospective new contract. “Maybe,” said the manager. “But I don’t want to talk too much about the contract until it’s done.”
Naismith has been sidelined since February with a knee injury and is in a race to be fit for the Scottish Cup final in five weeks’ time. Levein is adamant that no gambles will be taken on his fitness and that the influential attacker will only play if he is fully recovered from the injury.
“When it comes to dealing with knees and the major joints, you have to be careful,” said Levein. “He has had a couple of operations on his meniscus now so we don’t want to cause any further damage by him coming back too quickly. If he can make the final, it will be because he is ready. If not, so be it.”
Levein, meanwhile, insists that John Souttar won’t be fazed by speculation about his future after Rangers were linked with a summer move for the centre-back. “John is the most laidback kid I have ever met in my life,” said the manager. “It will take a lot to get John excited so I haven’t felt the need to speak to him about it. It’s just the usual crap, eh? We are coming up to a game against Rangers and there is speculation about one of our players.”
Levein told the Evening News earlier this week that Hearts have no plans to cash in on Souttar. When asked at yesterday’s pre-match media briefing what he feels the 23-year-old Scotland defender is worth, Levein said: “I don’t need to value John Souttar. It is straight-forward, if a club makes an offer then we will talk about it in the boardroom and then we will have a better idea of what the price should be.
“John has improved every year since coming here and is in no hurry to go anywhere. That is something he has stressed to me. He has said ‘I’m learning here’. He’s got great support around him, is improving and has got into the Scotland squad, which he is really proud of. He can improve further here.”
Levein this week branded Souttar the best defender in Scotland, and he explained yesterday why he believes this to be the case. “He can do more things than the defenders he would be put up against,” said the manager. “The big question was always his strength and ability to compete in the air and now he is as good as anyone other than Christophe Berra in that regard.
“He has worked really hard on his upper body and legs to make himself much tougher than he was as a skinny kid. He’s quick and really good on the ball. Those things are attributes that not every centre-half has. That makes him valuable.
“John is probably in a position where he has played close to a couple of hundred games, which is quite remarkable for his age. Without the two injuries he has had, he would have had more attention. It’s just taken a little more time than it otherwise would have. However, that has allowed him to do work in the gym and bulk up as well.”