Steven Naismith has warned the Ladbrokes Premiership’s top four that Hearts are hunting them down. Friday night’s 2-1 victory at Kilmarnock was the Edinburgh club’s fourth win in five league games and the Scotland striker admitted they are now targeting teams above.
Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen and Kilmarnock are ahead of fifth-placed Hearts, who have rebuilt momentum since Christmas. They led the table until injuries to key players hindered their campaign during the autumn.
However, with Naismith, Christophe Berra and John Souttar fit again, plus Uche Ikpeazu and Peter Haring days away from returning, Hearts are once again a force to be reckoned with.
Five of their next six Premiership fixtures are against sides in the bottom six, and Naismith senses an opportunity to usurp rival clubs who are only a few points ahead
“The short-term goal is to chase the pack ahead of us,” he said. “The first step was against Kilmarnock. They are ahead of us, effectively it was a six-pointer and we won it and it closed the gap.
“The next games we need to keep winning. All the teams at the top will start playing each other and then you get into that last bit just before the split. That’s when you can really look at your expectations and see what you are going to do.
“With every game that passes, the confidence grows. We are winning games well, playing well and then we are winning games when we are not playing so well. We are just grinding it out and that’s the sign of a good team.”
Victory at Rugby Park was achieved thanks to first-half goals from Sean Clare and Naismith before Jordan Jones’ penalty reduced the deficit. Hearts then defended for their lives and battled defiantly to see out the game in the second half.
“It was not pretty, it was not enjoyable,” admitted Naismith. “The main thing was the result and we knew that before the game. If you watch a lot of the games at Rugby Park, you don’t just play a hard Kilmarnock team, you play the pitch as well.
“We did it. I thought it was pretty similar to the first game here. There wasn’t a lot of quality and whichever team took their chances was going to win.”
The visiting players were aware they could send out a firm message to the rest of the league with a result in Ayrshire. “We spoke about this before the game. We said that, no matter what, if we took three points on Friday it was a statement of intent. We weren’t going to be that team who plays well one week and doesn’t the next,” said Naismith.
“We are showing that and it has helped that there are boys coming back from injury. Plus the younger guys, the prospects, who were floating about the fringes are now saying: ‘I want a slice of the action.’
“The players have stepped up. Jake Mulraney, Callumn Morrison and Sean Clare – all these guys are staking a claim and that’s all you can ask for as a manager.
“Yes, we got into a good shape. It is testament to the boys, there is a lot of work goes into that. It might just look as if you have everyone behind the ball but it is easy as a footballer to think, ‘I am going to get there and make that daft run to cut a ball out,’ and that’s what opens everything up.
“We didn’t do that tonight. We were disciplined and very solid so it was good.”
Hearts are now approaching the point of having all their first-team players fit. Naismith acknowledged that does not happen often. “No, it doesn’t last long either,” he joked. “The physios think, ‘oh brilliant, we are getting the treatment room clear,’ but there is always something. On the whole it is good. It just goes back to competition for places.
“At the start of the season we had a core of 14 genuine players who would start and other guys who would get fed in slowly. Now there are 17 or 18 players who want to play and expect to be in the starting team, so it is positive but you can’t take your eye off the ball.”
The 32-year-old is desperate to reach 50 international caps next month when Scotland face Kazakhstan and San Marino in European Championship qualifiers.
Currently on 49 caps, he has 15 goals in 26 appearances for club and country this season and is certain to be included in Alex McLeish’s squad.
“Hopefully. I just need to keep playing, scoring and making the difference in games,” he said. “I never expected to get to 50 caps, so to be so close ...
“There was a period before that injury when I was in the mid-30s, maybe 40s and thinking it had gone. With it being so close I am desperate to make it, so fingers crossed.
“I am enjoying my football. I said all along, even when I left Scotland to go to England, I wanted to go back to Scotland. I know what it is about, I enjoy it, it is a great ground for young players to come through but also there is more quality coming with every window that passes.”