Steven Naismith insists he’s entirely comfortable with being cast as Hearts’ driving force.
The Tynecastle side appeared to lose their way this season at exactly the moment the 32-year-old Scotland internationalist suffered a knee injury, with his two-month absence from the team coinciding with a grim run of only one win in nine matches.
Naismith’s return to the side over the last two games has helped restore optimism levels in Gorgie ahead of tonight’s Edinburgh derby at Easter Road. Asked if the correlation between Hearts’ form with him in the team was an accurate reflection of his influence or merely coincidental, he said: “I think it’s a bit of both. The experience was probably the biggest thing we lost, the way I speak to players during games. A lot of players at Hearts, as well as we have done, are still finding their feet.
“Young players are going to have that dip. As daft as it sounds, it’s coming into the first winter, it’s not all nice, the weather’s not good, that takes a wee bit for new players to accept and deal with, so it has been a combination of everything.”
Manager Craig Levein admitted recently that he struggled to find a way to play without Naismith in the team, but the player himself is adamant that he has not felt burdened by the notion that he has become irreplaceable at Hearts. He is hopeful that his presence at the club helps other players in the squad develop a willingness to lead via on-field communication.
“To be honest, what the gaffer said about me didn’t have that big an effect on me because I know what he thinks and I know the kind of character I am,” he said. “It’s evident we have good footballers in the team. But for me anyway, the new generation of player just gets the ball, does their bit and passes it on, there isn’t as much communication. That’s lacking throughout football and here as well. I’ll bring that back. And over time you just hope more of the squad pick that up because it’s not about ability of anything like that, it’s about shouting at your team-mates.
“You say it’s a responsibility, I don’t see it that way, it’s just the way I play the game. Christophe (Berra) is the same at the back and you tend to find goalies are much the same as well. But I enjoy it more when I see it makes a difference and we have noticed it a lot this season, whether it be a defensive tackle or somebody getting back to block or scoring.
“Away to Motherwell I told big Uche (Ikpeazu) to close the keeper down and we get the goal from it and win the game. As daft as it is, that makes the difference.”
Having scored the opener as Hearts defeated Hamilton Accies 2-0 on Wednesday, Naismith is determined to ensure his team finish 2018 on the ultimate high by enjoying their first Easter Road victory since April 2014.
“With the way we’ve been playing this season, we have dominated a lot of games and taken our chances when they have come along, so I definitely believe we can go there and get a result,” said Naismith. “It’s a big game for both teams in terms of the points and the swing it could cause in relation to each other. Also, for us, a win would keep us in touch at the top and finish the year on a high. Going into the break after a defeat would not be ideal. It would linger for a good three or four weeks and that will definitely be something that gets mentioned before the game.”
Naismith played in the last three Edinburgh derbies of last season and scored the winner in the most recent of those. He has enjoyed being part of the Capital’s showpiece match. “I would say this derby has more about it than I maybe thought before, in terms of the intensity and the rivalry,” he explained. “Every club has its rivals but with the resurgence of both clubs, getting back to the top league and fighting for European places and having an impact against the top teams, that has all built it up for me. It’s been great to play in, very intense with passionate fans and quality stadiums. It brings a great atmosphere.”
For the last derby, Naismith was restricted to watching on television from London as the two teams played out a grim goalless draw at Tynecastle on Hallowe’en, just days after he had sustained the knee injury that would sideline him for two months. “It was tough watching it, but it was more frustration at the end of it because I knew, with them going to ten men, they weren’t causing us too many problems,” he said. “We just weren’t intelligent enough as a squad to have the calmness, we didn’t need to score in the next five seconds and that’s what it ended up becoming. We lumped balls into the box and played into Hibs’ hands. We then had a dip after it.”
Naismith reiterated that he is in no rush to make a decision about his future. The on-loan Norwich City player is free to sign a pre-contract with any club he likes from the start of January, but will take his time to ponder what he expects to be the last big move of his career. “It’ll go on as long as it goes on,” he said. “Every move I’ve had there’s come a point when I’ve woke up and thought ‘I’m gonna do that because I want to do that’ but I’ve touched on it a few times, there’s so much more to it. I don’t want to sit in ten years time and think ‘I wish I’d gone abroad’. I couldn’t tell you whether that’s right or wrong at the moment. It’s more I don’t want to live with regret.
“As a footballer you get to a day when you wake up and you can’t play football any more. Simple as. That doesn’t happen in many industries. I then on top of that don’t want to look back and think ‘I wish I’d just done that.’ I’m having a great time just now at Hearts. Like I said to the manager, I could see myself being here in the future, easily. I enjoy it, my routine’s good but it’s more ticking off the ‘right I’m no doing that, I’m no doing that’ then I’ll come to the end point. Simple as.”