STEVEN NAISMITH did not sign up for this.
When the Scotland striker penned a four-year contract with Hearts last summer, he intended to spearhead a charge for European qualification, challenge for silverware or, in the worst case, secure a place among the Premiership’s top six.
Instead, the capital club are a point adrift at the foot of the Premiership and facing an onerous trip to Glasgow, a city in which their recent record against Celtic is abonimable.
Naismith finds himself the captain of a ship in real danger of sinking to the Championship.
However, he has come to terms with the ‘reality’ of that situation and, despite a dressing room of players largely unaccustomed to a battle for survival, the veteran attacker believes there is now a healthy acceptance and desire to extricate themselves from this mess.
“You can’t just say we have a better team on paper, it doesn’t work like that,” said Naismith. “Back in September and October you can say ‘we have had a bad start, we have had injuries’ and put it down to that.
“Well, we’ve had the winter break and games are rattling by now, coming thick and fast.
“I didn’t come here to be fighting a relegation battle – but there is a reality that we need to understand. We are in a relegation fight.
“It’s not nice but, away from that that, at least it’s in our hands at the moment. We need to make sure we keep it that way.”
When Naismith addresses the stark realities of a relegation fight, he is speaking from experience. He endured the heartache of relegation with Norwich City in 2015/16 and, while the Canaries were always expected to be in a dogfight that season, it still felt like an ignominious outcome.
“It [relegation] says that you’ve not done well enough, as a team and as a player,” continued Naismith. “It’s not a nice feeling at all. I hope I never experience it again in my life and we will fight to avoid it.
“It’s not as if people are shying away from it. As I do every time, I’ll be doing everything I can for the club to try and push us up the table.
“Since the turn of the year, there have been more boys putting in performances and trying cement their place in the team, rather than just think: ‘I’m not really bothered if I’m not playing because I’m nervous, worried and don’t want to be involved in these types of games.’”
There has also been more cohesion to Hearts’ play in the final third, even if, on occasion they have been ragged and open in defence.
The breathless, offensive 2-1 win over Rangers, and then subsequent two matches against St Johnstone and Kilmarnock where they failed to win either and conceded six goals, illustrate the good and bad of Daniel Stendel’s Gorgie revolution.
The German has vowed to stick to his principles at Celtic Park but Naismith has been around the block enough to know a balance will be required.
“Celtic don’t just have one or two special players who, if you keep them quiet, it gives you a better chance – every one one of their players has that one special moment in them,” acknowledged the former Rangers attacker.
“But since the manager has come in, we are creating more chances and that alone gives you the belief you can win games. I have been on the other side of this as an Old Firm player, and if teams have a go it can rock you a little bit.
“We are a bit more open in the way we play and that leads to more chances but we also know we need to defend well otherwise the game will be over before it really starts. That’s what can happen if you aren’t switched on.”
Hearts’ own threat is likely to come in the form of Naismith burgeoning partnership with Liam Boyce.
The duo were irrepressible in the memorable triumph over Rangers, while they have scored a combined four goals in four appearances together since the Irishman’s arrival from Burton Albion last month.
“We’ve probably not had that profile of a centre-forward for a wee while, that has got that determination to get in the box and want to score goals.
“Also, with one flick or bit of movement, he brings others in and starts attacks.
“You looked at our team and we maybe only had two or three players who would consistently get chances and score goals. That’s been something that we’ve lacked since the time I’ve been here so he has definitely helped with that.”