BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
CRAIG LEVEIN insists Steven Naismith can handle the boo-boys as the Hearts striker prepares to face Rangers for the first time since departing Ibrox under a cloud in 2012.
The 31-year-old is ensured a hostile reception in Govan after he joined Everton in the wake of the Gers’ financial collapse, choosing not to transfer his contract to Charles Green’s outfit.
That anger was ratcheted up when Naismith, a boyhood fan of the Glasgow giants, stated Rangers ‘no longer exists in its current form’ in a press conference to explain his decision to depart – a comment for which he has since expressed ‘regret’.
However, Levein has shrugged off the prospect of his on-loan attacker emerging as public enemy number one and is adamant Naismith has endured, and prospered, in more challenging atmospheres than the one he will face on Saturday.
“I haven’t even thought about that [abuse]. Part of the reason I am saying it’s good we can go to Ibrox with players like Naismith and [Kyle] Lafferty is they handle everything,” said Levein.
“They have played in bigger arenas than this, and Steven is an experienced player.
“I don’t even know what the whole thing is about, to be honest. I am not interested. My only interest is if Steven is going to be fit or not, whether his hamstring is at a point where it can get through the game without any further injury.
“If he is I can pitch him in without worrying about anything, he is experienced enough to deal with whatever happens. It won’t faze him at all.
Levein admits he has been impressed by the job done by rookie boss Graham Murty and has no doubt Rangers have improved following a January transfer window which saw them snap up the likes of Russell Martin, Greg Docherty and Jamie Murphy.
Nevertheless, he reckons there are plenty of weaknesses to be exploited after attending their astonishing 5-3 win over Hamilton at New Douglas Park last Sunday – revealing that even the Gers directors struggled to believe what they were seeing.
“It was the most bizarre football match I have ever seen,” laughed Levein. “I have never seen a match with so many mistakes in it. It was unbelievable. I was sitting with the Rangers directors and they were thinking the same.
“Some of it was brilliant, some of it was fantastic, but both teams made unbelievable mistakes. I’m hoping they do that again on Saturday!
“But Graeme [Murty] has had a difficult situation to deal with. He was going up from under-20s to first-team, then back down, then he was back up. That will have been difficult. I know because of all the changes we have had here – changes don’t help the continuity or stabilise the team.
“However, he seems to have stabilised things since he has been given the job. He has done a good job so I’m expecting it to be tough.”
Hearts will be without the midfield influence of Arnaud Djoum at Ibrox after the Cameroon international suffered a snapped Achilles against Ross County last weekend and is expected to be sidelined for around eight months.
And Levein confirmed Djoum will go for surgery at the start of next week as he embarks on a gruelling road to recovery.
“We had only just got to the point where he started to feel – and we started to feel – that his fitness was at a level where he could do the things that he wanted to do again,” rued Levein. “The disappointment is largely for him, having to deal with injury again.
Meanwhile, Hearts are set to extent the trial period of Ivory Coast youth internationalist Ghislain Guessan for a further week after the striker found the net in a development squad fixture against Dundee United on Tuesday.
“He has done reasonably well,” added the Hearts boss. “His fitness – because he has not played a lot – isn’t at a high enough level. He has done some things well.
“I have asked him to stay for another week to see if we can get his fitness levels up even further to see if he can do some of the things we need strikers to do in this country – which basically means more running about!”