BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
HEARTS star Steven Naismith insists he knew age would be no barrier for Steven MacLean after developing an immediate rapport with the experienced marksman.
The summer capture of MacLean, 35, was met with a lukewarm reception from some Jambos who felt the veteran’s best days were behind him following a magnificent six-year stint at St Johnstone.
However, he has made a mockery of that assessment in the opening weeks of the campaign, notching three times to help Craig Levein’s outfit reach the last-16 of the Betfred Cup before hammering Hamilton 4-1 in their Premiership curtain-raiser.
As well as illustrating an able eye for goal, MacLean’s bright movement and clever link-up play – particularly with the similarly crafty Naismith – has been outstanding.
And that is exactly what the Scotland international expected after admiring the attacker from afar.
“When he signed for Hearts I thought it was a very shrewd move by the manager from the start,” said Naismith.
“Talking about his age – you have players performing well into their 30s now so that was never going to be a major issue.
“From watching him from afar, you could always see that he had that intelligence. He understands what his movement does for himself, but also for his teammates. It is very easy to link up with someone like that and we are on the same wavelength.
“It’s just another one of those things that, over the next few weeks and months, will hopefully get better and better.”
As well as MacLean’s three goals, Naismith has found the net four times already, Uche Ikpeazu has three, while Peter Haring and Michael Smith have both notched twice for a Hearts side that have scored 17 times in just FIVE games this term.
Naismith is delighted to see the strikes spread around after admitting the Jambos were too reliant on Rangers-target Kyle Lafferty last season.
“The goals are coming from everywhere and that is something that HAD to improve,” continued Naismith.
“Last season we mainly relied on Kyle and that, for any squad, isn’t healthy.
“Of course you have your main striker that will score you goals, but you still need that variety of people chipping in from other areas. We’ve started off in the right way and, knowing that we’ve scored those goals and have quality players waiting in the wings, is a good feeling.”
While the Jambos have been rampant in recent weeks, they will be charged with stepping up in class when Brendan Rodgers’ double treble winners visit Tynecastle on Saturday.
Naismith acknowledges that Hearts face an onerous challenge, but has urged the capital club to take full advantage of any European hangover the Hoops may have following their crunch Champions League clash against AEK Athens tonight.
“It will be tough, they have been the benchmark over the past few years,” the former Rangers and Kilmarnock forward told Hearts TV. “However, we are moving forward as a squad and want to show we can compete with them.
“They have their mind set on Europe, which can be a tricky situation for them in terms of having two massive games and us sandwiched in between.
“From our side – as fans and players – we need to recognise that and start at a really good tempo and make it a tremendous atmosphere to push on.”