IF NOMINATIONS were being sought for the title of Scotland’s most effective player over the past 12 months or so, Steven Naismith would not be short of proposers.
The Everton forward has been an influential and consistent contributor to the improved performance levels of the national team as they have progressed under Gordon Strachan’s management.
But there remains a key part of Naismith’s own game he is desperately keen to improve upon as the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign continues with tomorrow’s match against Georgia at Ibrox and next Tuesday’s assignment with Poland in Warsaw.
The 28-year-old has scored just three goals in his 30 appearances for Scotland since making his debut seven years ago. For a player who has already found the net four times in the first two months of the English Premier League season, it is a disappointing ratio which he admits merits close scrutiny.
“I think that’s a fair criticism of me,” said Naismith. “I would have expected more goals for Scotland. I have played in a lot of different positions for the team and when you come up against a lot of the opposition we face, you are often doing a lot more defending in the game.
“It’s counter-attacking a lot of the time and you only get a couple of chances in a game, whereas at club level you maybe get a few more. But I would definitely say that’s the one thing I’m probably disappointed with – the amount of goals I’ve scored for my country.
“I had a good period in terms of scoring goals when I was at Rangers but this is probably the first time since then that I have played regularly in the same position for my club and the manager at Everton has worked things around me a bit more this season. That’s definitely helped.
“Hopefully, in the internationals it will be the same. With my good form at club level, I feel good going into every game. I feel as if I will get chances to score. Hopefully that is no different on Saturday and Tuesday if I play.”
Naismith has recently been deployed as the central striker in Strachan’s favoured 4-2-3-1 formation but his role could change with the return to fitness and scoring form of Sunderland’s Steven Fletcher.
“It will definitely be different to the Germany game in Dortmund last month,” he added. “We are at home against Georgia, favourites to win the game and there are players on form.
“Fletch has done very well getting back among the goals for his club. He’s a top quality player and it’s probably the first time he’s had a run without injury for while. Scotland should be going on to create a lot of chances and be more attacking in games now, so it will be different whether I’m playing, Fletch is playing or we are both in the team.
“I don’t think there is much difference for me if I am playing as the central striker or just off the striker.
“The workrate is probably similar. The job is slightly different, but overall, you’re in the same positions, making the same runs.
“In either of those positions, I feel at my most comfortable and at my most natural. In the Germany game later on, I pushed out wide and because we were attacking, you still had a bit of freedom to go and play and link up chances.”
This is the fifth qualification campaign Naismith has been involved in with Scotland and he believes the time is ripe for the current squad to take the national team to its first major finals appearance since the 1998 World Cup. To that end, victory over Georgia is regarded as essential by many following the 2-1 defeat by Germany in the Group D opener five weeks ago.
“It’s a bit early on in the campaign to call it a ‘must-win’ but it’s one we truly believe we can win and should be winning,” said Naismith.
“It’s not in our plans to get anything other than a win here and we are working hard on how to achieve it. We’ve shown a lot over the last 18 months but this campaign is the main event now.
“This is what we have been working towards. The performance in Germany was a big step forward. We didn’t go there just hoping to get something – we truly believed it. The disappointment in the dressing room afterwards showed how hungry we are.
“This is the most optimistic I have ever felt in a Scotland squad. The expectation is higher from everyone, whether it’s the fans, the players, the coaches. That’s down to the work we have done in the last 18 months and the fact there are more teams qualifying for Euro 2016 gives you more of a chance.
“The majority of the squad are getting to their late 20s. There’s a lot of experience and everyone is at the prime of their career. This is when you should be fulfilling your potential as international players.”
This weekend, Naismith returns to Ibrox for the first time since he left Rangers in the summer of 2012 after refusing to have his contract with the club transferred over under employment law following its financial collapse. His comment at the time that he “owed no loyalty to the new club” sparked an angry response from many Rangers supporters and led Naismith to lament the fact he may never be welcomed back at Ibrox.
Fate has decreed it is international duty which returns him to a stadium which was the scene of many personal highlights during four and a half years with Rangers when he won six major honours for the club.
“It should be good,” said Naismith. “I have some fantastic memories of Ibrox, not only of playing for Rangers, but also when I played there for Kilmarnock. Hopefully this can be another good memory.
“To be honest, I’ve not really thought about what happened in the past. With moving down to England, I’ve just focused on my career there. When I left Kilmarnock to join Rangers, it was a while before I went back to Rugby Park. So it’s not that big a deal for me.”
• Steven Naismith was launching the Scottish FA’s charity partnership with Dyslexia Scotland for which he is an ambassador.