JIM JEFFERIES insists crocked Steven Naismith can inspire Hearts to Scottish Cup glory from the sidelines – just like Gary Locke in 1998.
The Jambos have been rocked by the news that Naismith is almost certain to miss the May 25 showpiece against Celtic after undergoing surgery to repair knee cartilage damage in February.
However, the 32-year-old will still be a pivotal part of the build-up to the big day as he draws on his impressive pedigree to help his teammates.
And Jefferies, who handed Naismith his senior debut for Kilmarnock, is adamant his experience, guidance and motivational powers will be invaluable.
Jefferies told Capital City Press: “I’ve no doubt Steven will be part of the squad in terms of building up to the game, going to any training camps and being around the hotel the night before the game. He has played a part in getting Hearts there – and he still has a part to play.
“I know Steven well and, even as a kid coming through at Kilmarnock, he earned the respect of the older teammates due to his work ethic and desire to work hard and learn.
“As time has gone on, he has picked up even more experience and expertise to make him the man he is.
“Steven is constantly driving people on, encouraging them and is not scared to dish out some home truths when they are needed. He is an inspirational character.
“He has enjoyed a wonderful career, has played at Hampden with Scotland, won trophies and handled high-pressure situations – he could be important for some of the boys that haven’t been on this sort of stage before.”
Jefferies guided Hearts to the trophy in 1998, ending an agonising 42-year wait to lift the big cup with a 2-1 victory over Rangers.
And he cannot help but see the parallels with that triumph more than two decades ago.
The men in maroon went into that Celtic Park showdown without their inspirational captain Locke, who missed out on the fixture due to injury.
Nevertheless, his inimitable presence was felt throughout the preparations for the fixture – so much so, that stand-in skipper Stevie Fulton refused to lift the silverware without him.
Jefferies recalled: “Gary was our captain and, although he was injured and missed a few games, there was no way he would be forgotten about.
“The boys had so much respect for him – even for some of the things he did off the pitch – and he was there throughout the build-up to that game, just as if he was playing.
“It spoke volumes when Stevie Fulton said ‘I’m not lifting that trophy without Gary’. That’s how important he was.
“That was the same with a few of the other boys that weren’t stripped but were big parts of the season for us. We had a battle with the officials to get them on the pitch after the game to celebrate! But we made sure they got on because they deserved it.
“Hopefully, Stevie is on the pitch lifting the trophy on May 25 – and gets on the park a bit easier!”
While Jefferies acknowledges the absence of Naismith would be a ‘bitter blow’ for Hearts, he reckons Levein is making the right decision by erring on the side of caution.
The Scotland international is expected to sign a permanent deal at Tynecastle when his current contract with Norwich City expires this summer – and Jefferies believes the priority must be ensuring he doesn’t do himself further damage.
Jefferies added: “If there is any risk of him doing further damage – particularly if he is going to be at Hearts next season – the last thing you want is for him to start the season on the treatment table. He’ll want to come back fully fit and be all gun’s blazing.”