Mark McGhee watched Steven Naismith bring sheer professionalism, desire and quality to every Scotland gathering. He insists the time is right for the striker to join Hearts and show those exact qualities each day at Riccarton.
McGhee assisted Gordon Strachan at international level for the past five years and admits surprise at Naismith’s impending loan move to Edinburgh from Norwich City. He expected the 31-year-old to end up at Rangers. However continued growth at Tynecastle and a resurgent Scottish Premiership makes the loan agreement a tidy fit for all concerned.
Naismith is due to undergo a medical and, barring any unexpected late hitches, should join Hearts in time to debut against Hibs in Sunday’s Scottish Cup Edinburgh derby. McGhee says Hearts will have pulled off a monumental coup if the deal gets signed off.
“If you had phoned me up and said Steven Naismith was going back to Rangers, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. It wouldn’t have surprised me at all,” McGhee told the Evening News. “I know things move on and Hearts are improving in all sorts of ways, but I think they’ve done tremendously well to persuade Naisy to go there. I think they have signed a great player.
“His family are up in Scotland and he’s always going up to see them. He spends as much time as he can there, so I think this is a good time for him to go back. Most importantly, is it the right time to go to Hearts? I think it is.
“With the re-emergence of Hibs back amongst the top clubs and Rangers up there as well, the league is stronger than it was a couple of seasons back. I don’t think Naisy would have looked twice at it back then.
“With Hearts improving and strengthening, the ground redevelopment as well, all of that makes it an attractive proposition for him. It is a good time for him to go there. Two or three seasons ago, Hearts couldn’t have dreamt of getting players of this stature.”
That much is true. Naismith will join established internationalists like Aaron Hughes, Christophe Berra, Don Cowie and Kyle Lafferty in Craig Levein’s squad. Standards have been steadily rising under owner Ann Budge since Hearts emerged from administration three-and-a-half years ago. Naismith’s arrival will only augment the progress.
“He is the type of person and type of player you would want in your club all day long. He has a fantastic attitude and is a fantastic individual. Steven will be a shining example to all the young players at Hearts,” added McGhee, currently in a technical director role at English League Two club Barnet.
“His preparation and the level of professionalism he brings is just top drawer. These are things the manager and his staff would want to implement. Naisy will bring all of that and he will make their jobs easier. He will be a tremendous signing for Hearts.”
An Irvine lad who came through the Kilmarnock youth academy, Naismith agreed a £1.9 million transfer to his childhood heroes Rangers on August 31, 2007. He was registered by Ibrox officials just 19 seconds before the transfer window closed that year. He then joined Everton when Rangers went into liquidation in 2012.
Norwich paid around £8 million to take him to Norfolk in January 2016. He has struggled with injury this season and is out of favour at Carrow Road under manager Daniel Farke. Kilmarnock were interested in bringing the forward back to Ayrshire, but he has agreed to the Hearts move if both clubs can finalise a deal.
McGhee hopes to see Naismith lead the Tynecastle forward line, firmly believing he is best used as a No.9 despite his versatility.
“Naisy’s best Scotland performance was against Macedonia away,” said McGhee, recalling a World Cup qualifier in Skopje during the first year of Strachan’s tenure.
“He ended up playing up front himself in that game. He was flicking the ball on and then chasing his own flicks to try and get on the end of them. He was just incredible. I’d say that was his best display in a dark blue shirt.
“We were winning 2-1 and needed to see it out. He allowed the rest of the team to defend while he got on with things himself up front. It was a one-man show up there and his performance that night was just outstanding. He never let us down with Scotland.
“I think he’s better up top, playing up against people and putting them under pressure. He runs in behind, he’s good in the air and he can get a goal. He is experienced at a very high level now so he realises when he can drop in. He will do a tremendous job working back for the team defensively. Naisy will set the tone for everyone else.”
Motivation certainly won’t be a problem for a player who, despite the success and fortune achieved in England, will still feel he has plenty to do in football. Adding to his 45 Scotland caps will be high on the priority list. There’s no doubt he will want to play on for some time yet. He’s only 31 and he looks after himself so well. As I said, he is just a great professional.
“He always had a great approach to his international career. If he played, he played. If he didn’t play, his attitude around the place didn’t change. He accepted it and didn’t cause the manager any stress by moping or anything like that. He contributed a lot to our time with Scotland.”
Naismith is now preparing to add his unique industry, craft and goalscoring ability to a Hearts team still with aspirations of reaching the Europa League qualifying rounds this summer. His signing could be a vital shot in the arm in that regard, but first there is a Scottish Cup fourth-round tie to take care of. A debut against Hibs is as intense as it gets for an incoming Hearts player.
“Naisy won’t mind that. I think he’ll thrive on the pressure,” said McGhee.
NAISMITH WILL BE ‘A PEST’
Alan Stubbs believes Steven Naismith will prove to a very good signing for Hearts although he’s surprised the Norwich City star wasn’t snapped up by another English Championship club.
Ex-Hibs boss Stubbs knows Naismith well from his time at Goodison Park and paid the Scotland forward a glowing tribute, saying: “He has great attributes. He’s a great lad, very down to earth, humble. His workrate for the team is very, very good. He obviously knows where the goal is. He’s great in the air. As a defender he is a pest to play against even although he isn’t the biggest. He has great spring, he will rattle you, rile you, get on your nerves. He is a clever player, has a very good understanding of his role. He never stops working.
“I’m a bit surprised, not because it’s Hearts, but that I thought there would be clubs in the Championship who may have been on the table.
“There may be other things around it, maybe Steven wanted to get back to Scotland. That could be a big factor in it, but they have got themselves a very good player.”