Craig Levein has backed Steven Naismith to thrive on his Hearts debut as he prepares to pitch his two January loan signings into the starting line-up for tomorrow’s Scottish Cup fourth-round clash at home to Hibs.
Both the 31-year-old Scotland attacker and 21-year-old left-back Demetri Mitchell have been recruited until the end of the season from Norwich City and Manchester United respectively, and the manager confirmed that they are set to be handed a derby baptism.
There has been particular fanfare about the signing of Naismith, who moved to Norwich from Everton for a fee in the region of £8 million only two years ago and boasts 45 caps for his country. Levein expects the experienced former Kilmarnock and Rangers player to take tomorrow’s high-stakes Tynecastle showdown in his stride.
“There’s no point in trying to get him in before this game and then keeping him back, so he’ll definitely play,” said the manager. “The nature of the game won’t faze him. We’ve got other players, younger players, who haven’t lived through these types of things – and that always means a question mark against them. But that’s not the case for Steven, given everything he’s done in his career. I’m a huge fan of his. I like the way he plays and I particularly like his attitude. He likes winning, he hates losing and that’s a good thing.”
Levein is pleased to add another experienced internationalist to a squad that already boasts Don Cowie, Aaron Hughes, Christophe Berra and Kyle Lafferty. “I know it’s a loan deal but it’s a big signing,” said the manager. “He has got a bit of gravitas about him with the things he’s done in his career, what he has won, the clubs he has played at, the transfer fees he has gone for. It all points to him being a very talented player.
“He brings experience, he brings seriousness to the dressing-room about winning and effort and desire during football matches. And as much as I talk about these things, there’s nothing better than the players themselves, the senior players in particular, stressing how important it is.
“We have a few like that and the encouraging thing for me has been seeing how the young players have bounced off the senior players, how interested they were in hearing about their careers and listening to what they talk about before, during and after training. Listen, it’s a selfish thing for me. The more they listen to the senior players, the less I have to talk. It makes the job that little bit easier for me.”
Levein conceded that it is unlikely Hearts will be able to keep Naismith beyond the summer. The forward is contracted to Norwich until 2019 and remains on a handsome salary offered to him when his parent club were in the English Premier League. Funds raised from the recent sale of Jamie Walker to Wigan Athletic have helped make the current deal for Naismith feasible.
“Us getting him was down to his circumstances, family circumstances and not playing,” explained Levein. “Norwich were very good, they’ve understood his need to play – and that allowed us to put a deal together which was manageable for us, although still quite expensive. It’s quite a costly exercise and to do it on a permanent basis would be extremely difficult.”
Levein is buoyed by the fact most of his squad are fit for tomorrow’s match after a lengthy recent injury list. Prince Buaben and the suspended Lafferty are the only definite absentees. Mitchell is primed to join Naismith in making his debut. Asked if he felt the Man United loanee was equipped to be thrown into such an intense fixture, Levein smiled: “I don’t know but he is starting!”
Levein explained that any more new arrivals this month are likely to depend on whether or not any of those on the fringes of the squad depart. Rafal Grzelak left yesterday while Malaury Martin, Krystian Nowak and Cole Stockton are among those in line to follow the Pole out the exit door. Asked if he anticipated any further signings, Levein said: “I’ve not given up hope of doing other things. Some of the players who aren’t playing have expressed an interest in moving on and if they move out it would allow me to do other things, but as of now there is nothing concrete that I can say.”
Hearts host Hibs less than a month after the fiercely-contested goalless draw at Tynecastle in the Premiership. Levein anticipates a similarly competitive encounter tomorrow but is hopeful there will be more football on display.
“That’s a starting point, being combative and competitive,” he said. “Anything less than that is not good enough. I can’t always guarantee that the individual players are going to play well or we’re going to click as a team in any particular match. But the starting point is go out there and show everybody sitting in a seat in this stadium that they want to win.
“I hope we will see more football but the fight will still fill their heads. We have gone into the game with a head full of football in the past and that hasn’t worked. For me it is about that (the fight) first and foremost. That’s the starting point and then after that we will se what happens. Hibs will be doing the same thing, Lenny has them really competitive and the last time I knew it was going to be an interesting evening when Anthony Stokes elbowed John Souttar in the face after five minutes!
“I just think these games are competitive and I don’t want any of my players shirking that and Neil won’t want any of his players shirking that and I like that. It is the nature of derby matches. If it was sanitised, with nobody tackling, then it wouldn’t be what it is. I think the supporters in this country expect a derby to be competitive so I expect this game to be competitive and I hope the referee will let things take their course and we could see a good game.”