When attempting to pinpoint Hearts’ prospective key man for the upcoming season, it is hard to look beyond Steven Naismith.
Pedigree-wise, the 31-year-old is comfortably the standout name among the club’s 13 summer signings thus far after returning at the start of July on a season-long loan from Norwich City following a four-month stint with the Edinburgh club in the second half of last season. Of those already at Hearts, only Christophe Berra, the inspirational captain, can be bracketed alongside Naismith in terms of their likely importance to the team.
While Berra was the linchpin of the defence and indeed the entire team last season, Hearts are now at a stage where they need to become more than just a side renowned for defensive resolve and being hard to beat. Although the squad now has a level of depth whereby they shouldn’t be reliant on any particular player to enjoy prosperity, it is clear Naismith, whichever role he is given, will be viewed as the fulcrum of the attacking department of the team, the man charged with knitting everything together and ensuring there is a greater level of on-field harmony between midfielders and strikers than was the case last season.
Of course, it must be acknowledged that Naismith was part of a Hearts team that didn’t exactly catch fire in the second half of last term. In his 16 appearances (14 from the start), the former Kilmarnock, Rangers and Everton player was involved in only six victories - two of which came at home to Hibs, bookending his initial loan period in the best possible fashion.
There were games in between those rousing derby victories where Naismith failed to deliver the level of performance supporters had expected when he arrived amid a wave of hype in January, but towards the end of the season, there were enough signs that he was enjoying himself at Tynecastle and gradually rediscovering his form and fitness following a period of inactivity at Norwich prior to his return north.
Four goals in his last ten matches of the campaign, allied to particularly impressive performances in home wins over Partick Thistle, Aberdeen and Hibs, helped form the impression that Naismith would be a player worth trying to bring back for the current campaign.
Since this scenario came to fruition a month ago, Naismith has delivered three goals in three Betfred Cup matches and generally looked sharper than he did when he initially arrived six months previously. With Kyle Lafferty’s future unclear amid interest from Rangers, David Milinkovic having departed and Arnaud Djoum feeling his way back from long-term injury, the stage is set for Naismith to emerge as the main man at Hearts.
“When Hearts got him last season, he hadn’t played enough games and wasn’t quite ready but, with a good pre-season under his belt, I think he’ll be a big, big player this season,” said Billy Brown, the former Hearts assistant coach. “I think Hearts supporters will see a better Steven Naismith this season. When you look at the Hearts squad, he’s a clear standout.”
As well as his own football ability, Naismith’s experience and natural leadership qualities are deemed invaluable in helping a batch of new signings and academy graduates blend together in a high-pressure environment. Brown was Jim Jefferies’ assistant at Kilmarnock when Naismith emerged as a teenager at Rugby Park and has charted his career closely ever since, watching him grow into one of the most decorated, reputable and inspirational Scottish players of his generation. He is adamant Naismith’s good habits will be having a positive impact on those around him.
“I can’t speak highly enough about Steven,” said Brown. “His attitude is fantastic and has been since me and Jim gave him his debut as a 17-year-old. Every day in training and in every game, he gives his all. He’s a pleasure to have. He’s a smashing lad who just wants to play and do the best he can for his team. He’s a team player who contributes in lots of different ways, with his effort and his attitude and his ability to help other players.
“He’s always encouraging players and trying to get his team-mates going; even when he was young he did that. He doesn’t need to be the captain to encourage and cajole others. He’s an experienced international who has proved himself in the top league in England. He’s a great team-mate to have.”
Naismith turns 32 in September but, having come through the second half of last season without any notable fitness issues, there is no reason to suspect he is starting to wind down.
His most recent performances – at the tail end of last season and the start of this one – paint a picture of a man intent on rediscovering the level of form that saw him score a hat-trick for Everton against Chelsea less than three years ago.
“I don’t think his age is any hindrance to him whatsoever because he’s always been a fit boy,” said Brown. “The fact he’s 31 means nothing. The way he lives his life, the way he trains, the way he prepares for games, he’ll play for a good few years yet.”
The big question surrounding Naismith is where he is best deployed. Predominantly a striker in his younger years, he has evolved into an effective all-round attacker, capable of leading the line, playing out wide, behind a striker or even in a deeper midfield role.
Hearts manager Craig Levein feels Naismith now possesses so much game intelligence that he is inclined to give him a free role to roam wherever he feels he can have most impact. He has generally been deployed in an attacking midfield area at Hearts, but Brown believes there is still merit in sending him out to lead the attack.
“When he first came into the team at Kilmarnock, we played him wide left because we had Colin Nish and Kris Boyd through the middle, then after Kris left we moved Naisy up front,” said Brown.
“For me, his best position is up front. He doesn’t give defenders any time, he puts them under pressure every minute of the game, he’s really good in the air for his size, he’s aggressive in the air, he’ll make runs in behind and he’ll work for the team. I can see why people would play him in other positions because he works so well for the team, but I think if Hearts played Naisy through the middle, he’d get more goals than Kyle Lafferty.”
Wherever he plays, Naismith looks primed to become Hearts’ new talisman.