Steven Naismith has had plenty to occupy his mind since Hearts suffered their first competitive defeat of the season against Rangers at Ibrox a week past Sunday.
In the intervening period, he has been busy adding to both his Scotland cap haul and goal tally during the ill-fated double-header against Israel and Portugal. Although both matches ended in defeat for Alex McLeish’s team, Naismith has returned to his club buoyed by the knowledge that he is now just one cap shy of his landmark 50th and that his last kick of a football brought him a ninth goal for Scotland and an 11th goal in total for club and country this season.
“It’s always good to get on the scoresheet,” Naismith told the Evening News as he reflected on his stoppage-time consolation the 3-1 defeat by Portugal at Hampden on Sunday. “Although the result was disappointing, getting another goal and another cap is a good personal achievement.”
While Naismith and John Souttar were away on Scotland duty, the international break has afforded the majority of the Hearts squad additional time to recuperate and refocus after the disappointment of having their 13-game unbeaten run ended by Rangers, who capitalised on a poor defensive display to win 3-1.
Naismith believes the extra time between club matches will have benefited his colleagues as they prepare to return to action against Aberdeen at Tynecastle on Saturday, boasting a two-point advantage over city rivals Hibs at the summit of the Ladbrokes Premiership.
“I think the break will have done us good,” he said. “If you look at the bigger picture, we’re definitely where we want to be. A defeat was always going to come at some point, so we just need to make sure we bounce back this week.”
Naismith is braced for a tough test against an Aberdeen side who have shown signs in recent matches of getting back on track after an indifferent start to their campaign.
“It’ll be a tight game,” he predicted.
“Aberdeen have shown over the last few years they’re a very good team. They’re comfortable sitting among the top teams and having that pressure on them, so we’ll need to make sure we’re right at it. But we’ve started the season very well and we’ll go into it confident that we can get a result.”
The fact the match is at Tynecastle gives Naismith additional reason for optimism. Hearts took four points from their two home matches against the Dons last season, with the 2-0 win in April – in which Naismith and David Milinkovic scored – one of their standout results of the campaign. “The Aberdeen game at Tynecastle last season was one of our better performances,” he said. “Since I’ve been at Hearts, a lot of our performances at home have been good. There’s a good vibe around the stadium and we make it a bit of a fortress. We’ve got to keep building that momentum.”
Saturday’s match kicks-off an intense run of five matches in 15 days, with the visit of the Dons followed by a midweek trip to Dundee, a League Cup semi-final against Celtic, a midweek Edinburgh derby and then a Premiership match at Celtic Park. “It’s a tough run for us but it’s going to be an enjoyable one,” said Naismith. “These are the games you strive to play in. We’ve got ourselves a semi-final to look forward to in all of that, but we’ve got to take care of the two league games before.”
Souttar, who has been in superb form for Hearts this season, suffered a setback last Thursday when he was sent off for two bookable offences in Scotland’s 2-1 defeat by Israel. He subsequently missed the Portugal match with an injury sustained prior to his dismissal in Haifa. Assuming the 22-year-old centre-back is fit enough to captain the team against Aberdeen, Naismith has no worries about Souttar’s ability to instantly banish any negative effects. “He’ll bounce back,” said Naismith. “He’s a mature guy for his age, especially on the football park. I don’t have any doubts that he’ll bounce back fine.”
Naismith knows Scotland also have to prove they can bounce back after losing both of their matches over the past week. The Nations League defeat by Israel means the national team will probably have to beat both Albania and Israel next month to top their group, and, in that regard, Hearts’ talisman took some solace from the way Scotland played for long periods of a display in Sunday’s friendly against the Portuguese which was badly undermined by slack defending.
“It was a decent performance for an hour or so but we gave up silly goals and that’s been the story of the last two friendly matches, Belgium and Portugal,” said Naismith. “If you give up chances like that to top teams you’re going to get punished, and that’s what happened on Sunday.
“You come away from it and look at the score and it doesn’t really reflect the performance but at this level you get punished for every mistake. A few of the boys playing on Sunday, maybe in their domestic league they get away with some of the mistakes they’ve made, but at this level you can’t do it.
“Fortunately, for us a lot of the squad is young and starting out at this level so hopefully they learn from the mistakes. The performance was good, it was enjoyable to play in. We felt comfortable and were creating chances, and that’s the positives we take from it.
“I would say three of the last four performances have been good – Belgium, Albania and Portugal. Israel wasn’t good enough and in this meet-up, that’s the one that counted. Losing that basically turns the group into a two-game group for us, so we’ve just got to make sure we do what we need to do to top the group.”