“If you don’t go to sleep, he won’t come.”
Words used by my parents to ensure I went to bed on Christmas Eve without fuss when I was younger, slightly more impressionable than I am today and fully of the belief that Santa was real – the same words used by my wife a week past Wednesday to curb my child-like giddiness about the imminent arrival of Steven Naismith.
Having waited through the equivalent of two advents, it was somewhat of a relief when the club officially proclaimed last Thursday “Naismith Day” and confirmed the 32-year old had penned a four-year deal to see out his playing days in Gorgie.
The length of that contract – the longest I believe we’ve offered a player in the post-administration era – was the most eye-catching detail. Over the past few seasons, Hearts have been stung and rightly criticised on a handful of occasions for handing lengthy contracts to players who spent the vast majority of their Hearts careers loaned out to other clubs or languishing around the reserves.
On the face of it, such a long deal – for a player on the verge of his 33rd birthday and only just back from his second knee surgery in the space of a year – would seem like equally-risky business.
However, this isn’t any ordinary player we’re talking about. Since he first arrived on loan 18 months ago, Naismith’s value to this football club has become increasingly obvious. In fact, if you were to parody his importance, it would probably involve him coming off the bench with Hearts a goal down in the first league game of the season and scoring the equaliser with his first touch…
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what this over-reliance on Naismith has turned Hearts into: a parody of a side trying to shake its “one-man team” label but continuing to find new and increasingly exasperating ways to justify it.
After watching them struggle through a turgid round of Betfred Cup group games in Naismith’s absence, we were all counting down the days until his return, though I’m not sure many of us would have expected his restorative powers to have had as immediate an effect as they did on Sunday.
For over an hour against Aberdeen, Hearts created very little in the way of clear-cut chances, with Christophe Berra’s diving header the only true test of Joe Lewis’ reactions; ten minutes after Naismith’s introduction, we were 2-1 up. Quelle coincidence!
It’s not just superior ability that he brings to the table – we all know he’s our best player by some distance and therefore it’s no surprise that he makes everyone around him better in that respect – it’s also the way he carries himself; his presence, conduct and leadership.
As soon as Aaron Hickey received his marching orders, for example, Naismith was the first one on the scene with an arm around his shoulder and a word in his ear, counselling the teenager through what would undoubtedly have been the loneliest moment in his fledgling career to date.
From a fan’s perspective, what is also notable about Naismith is the way he’s bought into the club and its culture during his time here. He gets it. On the pitch, he’s an extension of the rest of us in the stands – he celebrates with the same wild abandon when we go 2-1 up at Pittodrie and expresses the same despair we all feel when we throw that lead away.
His influence on those around him – colleagues and fans alike – is unquestionable, which is why talk of coaching and management come as little surprise, with Naismith himself intimating that he hopes to stay beyond his current arrangement. As much as we’d all love him to play for the full duration of that, the extent to which he has recovered from his knee problems remains to be seen and, by the time this contract runs its course, he’ll be on the verge of his 37th birthday. For those reasons, the chances of his playing career lasting that long seem slim at best.
Player and club will doubtless be aware of this and, although both parties are fully focused on Naismith’s playing career for the foreseeable future, there were suggestions at his unveiling last week that conversations about his longer term future have already taken place. Having subtly run the rule over Robbie Neilson in the months leading up to his appointment as head coach, it’s hard to imagine the next four years passing by without Craig Levein assessing Naismith’s managerial credentials in a similar way.
Since coming out of administration, Levein has spoken regularly about his desire to see Hearts promote from within and establish a clear line of succession within the coaching staff. Those plans have yet to bear fruit and have been met with a fair amount of cynicism as a result. In Naismith, he may have finally found a potential successor supporters could get on board with.