Steven Naismith on 'brave' Hearts B, 3-4-3 continuation and rewarding work in new role
When Steven Naismith retired from his playing career in June to take up the role of football development manager at Hearts, he spoke of “shaping the development of players making their way towards the first team”.
One of the hardest things for any young footballer is that transition to the first team. The only harder task is staying there and continuing to progress.
For the young players at Hearts, the SPFL Trust Trophy is currently the best stage and environment to showcase their potential and impress the coaching hierarchy at Tynecastle, which includes Naismith, who was a vocal presence on the sidelines throughout the B team's 1-0 win over Edinburgh City at Ainslie Park on Tuesday night.
Since the introduction of B teams into the Challenge Cup – much to the dismay of many lower league fans – Hearts have recorded some notable scalps, defeating Stirling Albion, Albion Rovers and Cowdenbeath.
With City one of the pre-season favourites for League Two, Tuesday’s victory may perhaps be the most notable. Certainly in the manner it was achieved.
The team set up in the 3-4-3, which has become the hallmark of Robbie Neilson’s first team, and displayed real confidence and conviction throughout, whether it was the way they controlled proceedings in the first half or managed the game excellently in the second.
"It was really good,” Naismith told the Evening News. “These games are always a test for the kids, or the younger guys.
"There are guys in there who are only in full-time within a year. First half to second half you see the difference. City go more direct, they are more physical, try to put on more demands for the young players. But overall the night was brilliant.
"First half we played really well in terms of keeping possession, especially at this level. The best way to keep the pressure off is to keep the ball and we did that, we were very brave. There were a lot of good performances.
“The young players are eager to please and they think it’s getting a touch and passing it dead quickly when it’s not about that. You need to manipulate the other team and I thought we did that really well.
"Second half when they go more direct there is still an element of bringing the ball down when you have the chance and we did that. That and sitting in your shape and not again being eager to run and try and close somebody down which then has a knock-on effect with three players
"We sat in our shape, soaked up the pressure and the moments we did try and keep it we kept it really well.”
The 3-4-3 continuation
For large parts they looked comfortable within the shape. Mackenzie Kirk was unlucky not to get himself on the score sheet but proved himself an able link player as the central striker, showing a deft touch and awareness, while Scott McGill patrolled the midfield area bringing a bite to the team, ensuring there was no chance of them being bullied.
Much of what was being transferred to the players from the sidelines by Naismith and Under-18 boss John Rankin was their roles within the 3-4-3 system. Sean Docherty was told to get higher down the right-wing at one point, Euan Henderson advised to come inside and the midfield two of McGill and Aidan Denholm urged to put pressure on.
With Hearts manager Neilson watching on, playing in the manner of the first-team will aid players when they have that chance to make the transition up a group.
It has to be [a continuation],” Naismith said. “Some boys who played are involved in the first team.
"There has to be that continuity realistically throughout the whole club. There needs to be a plan, you go with that plan and everybody’s comfortable with it when they move up a group or move in a different training group they all understand the demands and that’s the only way you can improve as a full club.
“The younger players, we worked on it the last few days with them but they’ve done that in some of the 18s games as well.”
"It’s the best way to have everyone comfortable.”
Naismith’s role as football development manager
Naismith is understood to be a huge influence and inspiration around the Oriam for the younger players, even going back to his playing days. The 34-year-old has, after all, been there and done it. Broken through into the Kilmarnock first-team as a teenager, won titles at Rangers, played more than 100 times in the English Premier League and played 51 times for Scotland.
He is someone who when he talks you listen, and the players certainly did that as he encouraged, directed and supported from the sidelines, only occasionally expressing what he wanted in stronger terms. When he wasn’t helping the players on the pitch he would be listening and discussing the game with Rankin.
It is clear, Naismith lives for football, being on the training ground and for match days.
"It’s been hectic at the start, pre-season is a long time, you are in a lot, there’s a lot happening," Naismith said.
“It’s different, you need to work out a lot more in advance. As a player you don’t always see that, you’re too focused.
"Even on Tuesday night, the biggest thing I enjoy from it is I’m able to sit and watch and help the younger players, whereas normally in a first-team game you maybe try and do that but inevitably you are focused on yourself.
"It’s really enjoyable, really rewarding.”