Steven Naismith faces three games in eight days for Hearts after seven weeks out injured and he could not be happier.
Returning on Saturday at Aberdeen following knee surgery, the on-loan Norwich City forward is preparing to face Hamilton today and Hibs this weekend. He is delighted being thrust back into the epicentre of action.
Hearts have badly missed the presence of their top goalscorer since he trudged off disconsolately at Murrayfield at the end of October. They have won only once in the last ten games and scored just four times. Match sharpness is still returning, naturally, but Naismith insisted today that he is ready for the challenge of three important fixtures so close together.
“I felt good at Pittodrie,” he said. “Obviously when you come back after a few weeks out, it’s more about just grinding through the first few games and getting back into that routine. I felt fine within myself so it’s all good on that front.
“The manager took me off late in the game on Saturday so that gives you a wee bit of a rest. I know what I need to do and I’m comfortable with it. I’ve trained well and had good preparation so I’m comfortable that I can manage these games.”
Naismith’s absence coincided with Hearts beginning their wretched run of form. A home game against Hamilton offers the opportunity to turn their fortunes around and experience that winning feeling once more. To do so, the Scotland internationalist believes they must restore creativity in the final third. Such flamoyance contributed to a flying start to the campaign and took the Edinburgh club clear atop the Ladbrokes Premiership, but they have slipped to fifth place in recent weeks.
“It’s tough at the side of the park watching,” admitted Naismith. “It’s been frustrating seeing the games. Out of the run we’ve had, only a couple of games you would stamp as: ‘Today wasn’t good enough.’ The two which come to my mind are Livingston and St Mirren.
“Against Kilmarnock, we lost 1-0 but I thought we actually played really well. We chose the wrong option and then didn’t curtail Kilmarnock’s counter-attacking threat, which cost us.
“Although the run has been frustrating, there were some good things. As it goes on, more pressure builds. We weren’t scoring goals and we weren’t creating as many chances. That’s down to loads of players, not just me.
“The older boys need to let the younger boys know that it’s about grinding it out and doing what you’re doing. If we create the chances again, then we can do what we did at the start of the season. I think that’s what we need to think about for these next two games.”
Although Saturday was his first game back, Naismith found himself embroiled in controversy following a second-half challenge on Aberdeen’s Lewis Ferguson. As he stepped away from his opponent, he accidentally trod on his calf – prompting Aberdeen players and their manager to react angrily.
“Derek McInnes is Derek McInnes. He’s going to try and do what he can for his team and try to get an advantage,” said Naismith.
“I know he would have been riled after how well we played in the first game against Aberdeen at Tynecastle – and how disappointing his team were. That was one of his major points.
“There was nothing in that incident. You can see it. As I’ve went back, I’ve got to put my foot somewhere. Even Ferguson didn’t make a deal of it. The other Aberdeen player [Stephen Gleeson] who came in makes it a bigger thing than it was. He ran over and gave the ref an issue.
“Everybody is talking about referees again but what he [McInnes] says after the game adds pressure on to a referee. You’ve got to trust the system. Our manager spoke about the penalties – Aberdeen get their penalty, should we get ours?
“At the time, John pulled me over and I was speaking perfectly fine to him. I was saying: ‘Look, it’s a foul. I understand it’s a foul.’”
Calls for VAR are prevalent again in Scottish football as officials come under weekly scrutiny over every decision. Hearts are keen to see the technology installed as quickly as possible to vastly reduce the number of controversies stemming from wrong calls or feelings of injustice.
Naismith is keen to focus on issues on the field as he works his way back towards optimum physical condition. Beating Hamilton this afternoon is the ultimate priority and all thoughts of visiting Easter Road on Saturday evening have been banished for now.
“The games are coming thick and fast, which is good for me in some respects when I’ve missed so many,” he said. “Being at home, we need to put on a performance and stake our claim in the game to show that we are on the front foot. That gives us another opportunity to get a positive result to take into the derby. That’s what we are working towards.
“It’s about this next game. So many teams rest players and get a good result but then they lose the next game, so it’s effectively null and void.
“We are only looking at the next game. Right now, we have to just look at this block of two matches, try to get the six points and hit the winter break on a bit of a positive.”
A yellow card for the aforementioned incident at Pittodrie triggers a one-game suspension for Naismith, although it does not take effect until after the three-week January sabbatical. He isn’t letting that disappointment distract him from the important task at hand over the next few days.
“I have a suspension coming up because I miss the Dundee game next month. It’s disappointing that I’ll miss the Dundee game but we have a Scottish Cup game before that so I have plenty time to get up to speed,” he said.
“It’s a midweek match so that makes it just a normal week for me. In the short term, I’m just looking to help the team get two good results.”