Steven Naismith is relishing the chance to be a role model for Hearts’ burgeoning band of young players.
The Scotland forward has joined on loan from Norwich City until the season end, with manager Craig Levein outlining his hope that, as well as making the Tynecastle side a more dangerous attacking force, Naismith can help fellow senior professionals like Don Cowie, Aaron Hughes and captain Christophe Berra impart their wisdom to those at the opposite end of their careers.
Hearts have fielded more teenagers than any other club in Scotland this season, and Naismith is excited about the opportunity to help nurture them at a vital stage in their development. The 31-year-old recalls being heavily influenced by more established players when he broke into the Kilmarnock team more than a decade ago, and is hopeful that Hearts’ youngsters are similarly receptive to any advice he can offer.
“I’ve watched a few of the youngsters at Hearts,” said Naismith. “I still watch a lot of Scottish football and it’s exciting to see them coming through. When I was younger, I would ask questions all the time because I was hungry to know things. I know how well the older guys in the Kilmarnock team did for me, so if I can have that type of impact on these boys, that will give me a lot of satisfaction.
“I remember clearly at that age what my thought process was. I remember Stevie Murray at Killie signing a new first-team contract as a big prospect, and I used to think ‘imagine getting to that point, imagine being a main player for Kilmarnock’. Then I would look at Boydy (Kris Boyd) and think ‘imagine being the main man at Kilmarnock’, and that drives you and drives you. So I understand how these guys think and how they will want to get to the top. If I can help them I will do all I can. I hope they all have questions, I enjoy that. I warm to people who aren’t shy to ask questions because I was that type to ask questions.”
It is clear that, even at the supposed business end of his career, Naismith still harbours the same drive and desire he had when he was starting out at Rugby Park. After a frustrating start to the season at Norwich City, where he had completely fallen out of the picture under manager Daniel Farke, Naismith was desperate to get out and play first-team football elsewhere. A handsome salary handed to him when he joined Norwich as a Premier League club for around £8 million just two years ago wasn’t enough to satisfy a man who just wants to play football. The move to Hearts – where he is reunited with his former Scotland manager Craig Levein, fellow internationalists like Don Cowie and Christophe Berra, as well as his long-time Rangers and Norwich clubmate Kyle Lafferty – ticks boxes, but the most significant one is the guarantee of regular game time in a competitive environment.
“The biggest thing is just being desperate to get back training with the promise of a game at the end of the week,” said Naismith. “Since I’ve come back from injury it’s been frustrating. It’s probably the first time in my career that I’ve experienced a situation where I’m not even considered by the manager, so it has been challenging. But I have used the time well in the gym to get a good routine so that I was ready for whenever a move happened so I’m in a good place to be honest.
“I think the bigger factor as you get older is there is more to think about with making moves. There’s family life and my daughter starting school and things like that so it’s not as straightforward as when you’re a young guy making it in the game when you’d just go wherever you think is going to progress your career.
“Money doesn’t matter so much now. I’ve been fortunate enough that I’ve done well and got some good moves so it is now more about enjoying it. The fact that one day you will wake up and not be able to play football any more becomes foremost in your thoughts so it’s about getting back playing and enjoying it.”
Naismith, who has represented Kilmarnock, Rangers, Everton and Norwich to date, was impressed by the sense of tradition at Hearts.
“I said to the manager on Thursday when I was looking around the stadium and the training ground that it has a similar feel to a lot of the clubs I’ve been at,” he said. “Being in the museum and speaking to the guys there, they are really passionate about Hearts and know everything about the club. They are real proper football people and that carries on the whole way through the club. It makes it much easier to come into a club like that which has a lot of history and tradition. Growing up watching and playing in Scottish football I know what Hearts is about and while they’ve had some bad times in the recent past, the club is definitely moving on led by the gaffer and Ann Budge.”
Naismith is looking forward to being a team-mate of Lafferty’s once more after spending six months apart following the Northern Irishman’s move to Hearts last summer.
“In the changing-room especially, he was a massive loss at Norwich,” said Naismith. “He’s one of those characters that, when there’s a low vibe around, he instantly makes it much more enjoyable. As he’s get older, he’s probably matured a lot in terms of his football. I definitely saw a difference in him between our time at Rangers and at Norwich, and hopefully I see another difference in him at this club. Once he gets back from his suspension, hopefully we can have a good partnership like we did at Rangers.”
The chance to work under Levein again appeals to Naismith. The manager was much maligned during his time in charge of the national team but, despite some underwhelming results, retained the respect of the bulk of his players, as evidenced by the fact three – Cowie, Berra and Naismith – have now joined him at Hearts.
“I enjoyed working under Craig with Scotland,” said Naismith. “There were obviously mistakes in terms of the whole squad, and not qualifying for a tournament is ultimately a failure. But a lot of what he did in terms of preparation and things like that, I really liked and enjoyed. I learned a lot from him. I was comfortable coming in to work under him again.”
Naismith, with 45 Scotland caps to his name, is hopeful that his move to Hearts can serve as a platform to help him back into the international set-up after he fell out of the picture towards the end of the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign.
“In all honesty, when I started out I never thought I’d get anywhere near 50 but over the years, you get closer and then you get into the 40s and you think ‘I’ve got a chance of this if I keep doing well’,” he said. “I would be lying if I said I didn’t think about that. Hopefully this move can extend my Scotland career. I want to get back playing first of all and then it’s about trying to catch the eye of the new Scotland manager, whoever that may be.
“I didn’t only come back to Hearts for that purpose, just getting back playing was the biggest factor in me deciding that I needed to move in January, but I do want to give myself the best possible chance to get back involved with Scotland. You’re doing yourself a disservice if you say ‘nah, I’ll sit it out – something better will come, I’m not fussed for moving’. You’re on the back foot straight away if you do that. I’ve always been somebody that wants the chance to show what I’m about.”
His first chance to do that in a Hearts jersey comes against Hibs in tomorrow’s Scottish Cup fourth-round tie at Tynecastle. “Every team I’ve played with has had a proper derby,” he said. “I’ve managed to play in them all for every club, so it’ll be great to play in this one. I enjoy the intensity and desire in these games. Growing up as a Rangers fan, it was obviously special to score in an Old Firm game. My first goal for Everton was in the Merseyside derby which probably gained me a bit of time to turn it round with the fans because I hadn’t had the best of starts up until then, and I think I managed to do that. I know exactly what a derby goal would mean tomorrow, especially if we win. We just want to get into the next round, so if we win 1-0 with big Christophe scoring, I’ll be happy enough with that.”