BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
HEARTS attacker Steven Naismith has revealed that Hibernian head coach Neil Lennon indirectly influenced his move to Rangers as the pair
The duo are no strangers to squaring off on derby-day, with Naismith starring for the Gers against Lennon’s Celtic on seven occasions and making his Jambos debut against their capital rivals in January.
However, he has a healthy respect for the Northern Irishman, recalling the afternoon when Lennon – winding down his career at Nottingham Forest – sought out the fresh-faced teenager following a friendly against Kilmarnock to offer some support and guidance.
One suspects it was not Lennon’s intention to ensure Naismith ended up at Rangers in 2007, where he would score 33 goals and win six major trophies, but that was the outcome nonetheless.
“The pre-season just before I left Kilmarnock we played Forest in a friendly and Neil was playing for Forest,” recalled Naismith. “After the game he said ‘look, make sure you make the right choice for you and don’t be forced in to any move.’
“As young guy that’s nice to hear from an older pro who’s been there and done it. Me joining Rangers might not have been the intent – but that was the end result.
“I’d always listen and pick the bones out of any advice in terms of what was good for me and what was bad for me.
“It just shows the type of character he is. He obviously takes a lot of stick but, solely focusing on football, I think he gives solid advice and is always there to give the right guidance to anybody involved.
“That is my experience of Neil Lennon and you always have that mutual respect.”
Fast forward 11 years and Naismith is now the experienced professional; the wisened internationalist offering advice to the youngsters around him and, he hopes, helping Hearts to rediscover their form of the early part of the season.
Hearts boss Craig Levein has been candid in describing Naismith’s importance to the Jambos side, in terms of his quality on the pitch and his influence on those around him.
In just his second start since returning from a knee injury, the 32-year-old scored the opening goal in a 2-0 win over Hamilton on Boxing Day. By contrast, in the nine games he was absent, they one once. No pressure, then.
“To be honest it [that responsibility] doesn’t have that big effect on me because I know what the manager thinks and I know the kind of character I am,” continued Naismith. “The experience was probably the biggest thing we lost, the way I speak to players during games.
“For me, the new generation of player just gets the ball, does their bit and passes it on, there isn’t as much communication. That’s lacking throughout football and up here as well. I’ll bring that back. Over time you just hope more of the squad pick that up.
“I don’t see it that as a responsibility, it’s just the way I play the game. Christophe [Berra] is the same at the back and you tend to find goalies are much the same as well.”
Naismith’s incessant badgering and experience of the big occasion is likely to be pivotal amid the Edinburgh derby pandemonium at Easter Road.
As well as his Old Firm outings, he has featured in Ayrshire, Merseyside and East Anglian rivalries. And has never shirked a tackle.
He missed the last encounter against Hibs – a dreary 0-0 draw that was sadly overshadowed by crowd trouble – through
“The biggest derby goal was probably the one I scored in the Merseyside derby [in October 2012],” he recalled. “I wasn’t actually playing that well and was thrown into the derby and scored to make it 2-2.
“I still get reminded about that – but thankfully I did a little bit more after that which they talk about.
“I actually made my debut for Kilmarnock against Ayr at 16 in an Ayrshire Cup match, but I wasn’t thinking at the time: ‘this is a derby’. I was thinking about being a kid just out of school, in a daze about playing for the first team with a strip on that was way too big for me!”
On the challenge of claiming a first Hearts win at Easter Road since April 2014, Naismith added: “I definitely believe we can go there and get a result. A win would keep us in touch at the top and finish the first half of the season on a high. That’s what we are looking to do.”