BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
JAMIE HAMILL watched with pride as Steven Naismith grew from fearless Ayrshire schoolboy into the man who tormented Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea – and insists Hearts have achieved a remarkable coup by tempting the forward back to Scotland.
Ex-Jambos ace Hamill emerged through the youth ranks with Naismith, playing in the same side from the age of 11 as they chased their professional dream.
He readily admits that there were more talented players in the system at Rugby Park, however none had the same grit, determination and desire as Naismith and he swiftly made the breakthrough at Killie under the no nonsense tutelage of Jim Jefferies and Billy Brown
Even as a skinny teenager Naismith was not overawed by the tough love, or crashing into challenges against seasoned pros like Garry Hay and James Fowler – leaving Hamill in no doubt he was watching something special.
He would go on to score 35 goals for the club before turning out for Rangers, Everton and Norwich and becoming a Scotland regular.
Now 31 and searching first-team football, a deal to see him spend the rest of the season on loan at Tynecastle will be confirmed in the next 24 hours.
“I grew up with Steven and we were the fortunate ones to make the grade from that generation at Killie,” recalled Hamill, now on the books of Stranraer. “He’d be the first to say there were more naturally talented players in our team, but his desire, mindset and focus was incredible.
“You knew he could go all the way in the game. He just had that never say die attitude that you need to make it. Nothing was going to stop him.
“As a young player at Killie, it was an unforgiving environment. Jim Jefferies is a hard taskmaster, but there is no-one better to learn from. If you can handle it, then that toughens you up and I’ve no doubt that helped Steven later in his career.
“He wasn’t shy in flinging himself into tackles, either! We had some senior players – and some big boys – in that dressing room and he never shied away from a challenge. That’s an attitude he took into his later career.
“I remember watching him score a hat-trick against Chelsea for Everton [in a 3-1 win, September 2015] and thinking ‘on you go, you’ve made it’. I’m delighted he has gone on to do so well and, if it all goes through, can’t wait to see him in a Hearts jersey.”
Hearts boss Craig Levein expects to seal the deal in the next 24 hours and is willing to pitch Naismith, who he managed while Scotland boss, straight into action in Sunday’s Scottish Cup clash against Hibs at Tynecastle.
It will be a baptism of fire for Naismith, a veteran of Old Firm, Merseyside and East Anglian derbies – and Hamill reckons he is exactly the sort of character who can make himself an immediate hero in Gorgie.
He continued: “It’s funny, you look at Steven and there’s a temptation to think ‘he’s not a flair player’ or whatever. But he gives you a 110 per cent and has that invaluable ability to come up with really vital goals.
“Steven has performed in some of the biggest derbies in the World, for my money, in Glasgow and Merseyside and he never looked out of place, he always stepped up. I’ve no doubt he could go straight into the game on Sunday.”
And Hearts have never been hungrier for a victory, having endured a nine-game winless run against their fiercest foes, stretching back to August 2014.
Hamill added: “Steven is a big game player and there’s no bigger game in Edinburgh than the derby. Every derby has different characteristics and the Edinburgh one is special. When you are part of the game, it’s huge. You feel the scale of it and how fierce it is.
“Steven could make himself very popular straight away if he can score the winning goal against Hibs, given the recent run between the teams.”