Steven Naismith rejoined Hearts on loan from Norwich City hoping to reacquaint himself with title challenges and critical cup ties like tomorrow’s Betfred Cup semi-final against Celtic.
Now they are a reality, the Scotland internationalist is not ruling out signing a pre-contract agreement to stay longer at Tynecastle Park.
HHis Norwich contract expires at the end of the season concurrent with his loan, leaving Naismith free to talk to other clubs as of January. His salary in England is far beyond the reach of any Scottish club but Hearts will likely still be first in the queue with a pen and the best deal they can offer when the striker ponders his future.
Other clubs will have noted his renaissance back in Scotland. At 32, he is back in the national team having scored 13 goals in 19 games for club and country to date this season and is idolised by supporters despite being a mere loanee.
He is also captaining Hearts with Christophe Berra and his deputy John Souttar out through injury. Being so highly thought of by coaching staff and fans could well sway him to remain in Edinburgh beyond next summer, although the player remained non-committal when the subject was broached.
“In the last week or so it’s been more brought up but I’ve not thought about anything, even the fact that I’ll be on a free transfer in the summer,” explained Naismith. “I’ve loved the start of the season. I wouldn’t rule it out at all. But I also know that this season, for me, is about my football – about playing and playing and playing.
“I’m not going to start doing things that will upset that one way or the other, whether that be with Hearts or whatever. Hearts have been great to me in the past year, 18 months come the end of the season. So that’s something that I do appreciate. Journalists having been bringing my future up more. I’ve been playing well and not thinking about it.
“When you are on loan, you just think: ‘Right, I’m on loan, enjoy.’ There is an end point to that loan. My situation is slightly different in that I’ll be out of contract, but I think everybody that’s been involved in this loan is happy.”
He knows returning to Norwich is not an option. “I don’t think so. As a club, they’ve moved on – and they’re flying as well, which is good to see. There has been a big change there. I am, unfortunately, part of the past there.”
Naismith spent the second half of last season on loan at Hearts and returned in a year-long agreement in the summer as part of a structural overhaul of the squad by manager Craig Levein.
The forward is now a pivotal figure in a team six points clear at the top of the league and aiming for a cup final place. “It has been a while since I’ve been in a semi-final so that alone brings its excitement. As you get older you manage to enjoy and saviour the situations more, at least I do. When you’re younger it’s a bit of blur when you think back, whereas now I definitely enjoy things more. There are certain things that stick out. I scored a hat-trick for Kilmarnock against Falkirk in the semi-final. I got a bad injury in one of them and also won a couple as well.
“It’s a great occasion, fans turning out in numbers, us being on top form and Celtic a top team in the league. It’s a recipe for a great afternoon.”
Even more so since the Scottish Professional Football League relented and moved this tie from Hampden Park to BT Murrayfield. Around 30,000 Celtic fans and an equal number of Hearts supporters will shuffle into their seats at the home of Scottish Rugby to watch one of the most prestigious football matches ever staged in the Capital.
“It’s a very big moment if you look at Hearts’ recent history,” Naismith pointed out. “They’ve been through so much stuff over the last four to five years and now have this aura of calmness, time to make right decisions – to build things and not just plaster over the cracks – if you like.
“There’s more foundations being put down and huge credit goes to the fans, but Ann Budge and the gaffer inside the club are the ones that have definitely driven that.”
The next, perhaps most difficult, step is lifting silverware.
“That is the next level, winning something. The manager has built a squad that has a lot of hunger in it,” said Naismith. “From last season to this year, it’s about being top of the league and challenging, getting to semi-finals, finals. That is the next stage.
“We’ve had a lot of moments this season that could have gone one way or the other with the squad. First of all, Christophe Berra getting injured, then we have John Souttar and Uche Ikpeazu getting injured, our first defeat at Ibrox and then having an international break and it lingers. [People ask] how are they going to be? But we’ve rattled out two good performances, scored some goals and won well. We’ve jumped these hurdles every time and this is just the next one.”
Beating Aberdeen 2-1 and Dundee 3-0 in the two games since international fortnight sets Hearts up well for tomorrow’s encounter. Their squad, collectively and individually, have so much to play for.
“That air of confidence has been built from pre-season right through until now,” continued Naismith. “That comes from having a group of older, experienced players who understand these situations.
“Also the majority of young players here aren’t fazed by anything. They just go about their business from week to week and are hungry to get better and in some ways they want to move on.
“They all have their own agenda. Jimmy Dunne’s next step is to do it here and then show that he can play for the Burnley first team. Demi Mitchell is the same with Manchester United.
“Callumn Morrison is desperate to do well at Hearts and become a regular and then hopefully get in the national team. The boys who have come from Australia want to make it in Europe so Hearts is a good place for them to be.
“All these things make up why there is a good team ethic here. The players haven’t once said: ‘This is a big semi-final’. It’s just the next game for us. For me and all the experience that I have had in football, that is a better way to be than building up a big semi-final.
“There are no prizes at stake for winning a semi-final.”