Anyone inside Tynecastle Park yesterday not already aware of the difference Steven Naismith makes to Hearts should be fully informed now. The on-loan Norwich City forward only returned from knee surgery on Saturday at Aberdeen but influenced a welcome Boxing Day victory for the Edinburgh club over Hamilton Academical.
He scored the first goal in a 2-0 win – his 14th in 22 games for club and country this season – and could have claimed at least one more with a classy and assured attacking performance. He dropped off into channels, linked play, cajoled colleagues and harried opponents. In short, everything you would want from a striker. And much of what Hearts have missed since late October.
“I thought it was a decent performance. We didn’t quite get the icing on the cake, but the cake was pretty good,” smiled Hearts manager Craig Levein of his team.
“Naisy makes a huge difference to us and also to the opposition, because they look at the team sheet and think: ‘Oh, Naismith’s playing.’ He’s cajoling and encouraging people on the pitch throughout the match. He missed a sitter in the first five minutes but top players like him, the next opportunity he gets, he takes it.
“He’ll admit he can play better, but his general play helped the team and on another day we could have had five or six goals easily. We missed some really good chances so it’s good to see us back to the point where we can miss them and still win.
“I thought we played some good stuff at Aberdeen without an end product. Yesterday we had end product and we had loads of chances as well. You can still see the little bit of nervousness. Confidence doesn’t come in a bottle. You can’t drink it. It has to arrive via performances and results.”
Even the Hamilton manager Martin Canning conceded that Naismith and his attacking partner Steven MacLean were too wily for his younger centre-backs. Without the experienced Matt Kilgallon, Darian MacKinnon and James Keatings through injury, this was a tough assignment for the young Accies players.
“It’s definitely a learning curve for my young players going up against Naismith and MacLean,” said Canning. “I said it to my players before the game that they’re probably the two best in the league in terms of cuteness, their experience, their ability to find space and drag you into places you don’t want to go. We’ve got younger players in there and it’s a hard task.”
This was an efficient Hearts performance with plenty astute individuals within it, the end result being a much-needed second win in 11 games. Naismith made the difference with his guile, intelligence and influence. Callumn Morrison was back to his energetic and exciting best on the right flank, while Ben Garuccio enjoyed arguably his best afternoon in a maroon shirt with Demetri Mitchell suspended.
Naismith could have scored in the opening moments from the first of many Morrison crosses from the right. However, the Scotland forward headed wide from close range. The breakthrough finally arrived on 18 minutes.
Garuccio scampered inside to feed Naismith, who turned to plant a composed finish low beyond the Accies goalkeeper Gary Woods from the edge of the penalty area. Hearts deserved their advantage and could have doubled it when Naismith slipped a quick free-kick through to MacLean on 32 minutes. His shot, however, was off target.
It took Hamilton 40 minutes to test Colin Doyle in the home goal, although the Irishman had little trouble collecting Scott Martin’s low drive. Hearts’ second did arrive a minute from the interval when Arnaud Djoum controlled Morrison’s cross near the six-yard line and fired low into the net.
A third goal eluded the home side after the break, with Sean Clare’s square ball creating a tap-in for Djoum until Dougie Imrie’s brilliant last-gasp challenge. After Shaun Want’s dismissal, Hamilton’s Ziggy Gordon was penalised for handball inside the penalty box, but Michael Smith’s spot-kick struck the underside of the crossbar and bounced clear.
“Because we’ve had problems with penalties, we’ve been practising them a lot,” explained Levein. “Michael’s been the most consistent in the kind of penalty he took. He’s just obviously hit it a little bit high. I didn’t even know what the penalty was for to be honest. I had to ask the fourth official.”