Interview: Gary Naysmith on falling short of 50 Scotland caps
Gary Naysmith, Scotland’s original Naisy, has got pretty good recall of most things. For instance, he remembers nice little details about his pocket-money job as a kid, helping his grandfather ready the racing pigeons for competition.
“My papa had an old Silver Cross pram which he customised for his basket and every Friday night he gave me a fiver to wheel the birds round to the clubhouse,” says the 46-times capped left-back.
And he can tell you who dies in the final reel of just about every movie currently playing because, on his lonesome in Aberdeen and currently injured, he’s seen most of them. “Because I’ve just got a one-year contract I’ve only moved my wife Gillian and the family as far north as Dalkeith, close to my old stamping ground in Loanhead,” says Naysmith, who had 12 years in England. “So after my physio it’s either back to my wee apartment up here to get bored or out to the flicks which is much more fun. Yesterday I saw Lawless and the day before that the new Bruce Willis one. Maybe you’d better not mention any more films or Gillian will get annoyed at me eating Nachos while she’s running after three kids!”
But, try as he might, with the big game against Belgium upcoming, Naysmith can’t remember very much about the last time Scotland were in Brussels on World Cup business 11 years ago – a 2-0 defeat confirming our non-involvement in the Far East and denying the Tartan Army their sushi. “Belgium scored in the first half, didn’t they? We had to chase the game, it opened up, and they got a second right at the end. But back then there wasn’t much between the teams, whereas next week, although I think we’ve got a chance, you’d have to say that with all their English Premier talent they’re favourites.”
If we wake up on Wednesday the wrong end of a yawning gap in Group A then Naysmith, 33, will feel for the senior players if they’re thinking their major finals dreams might be over. “Maybe crucial qualifiers blur for me because I never got to a World Cup or the Euros. That’s been one of my big disappointments, international-wise, and the other is not reaching 50 caps.”
Scan the cuttings from his Hearts and Everton days and he was a stone-cold certainty for the half-century. “I would have loved to have got into the Hall of Fame, to have been able to take the kids and the grandkids on wee tours – what an honour. But with my injuries, it wasn’t meant to be.” And what lousy luck he’s had: cruciate, medial ligament “and the sesamoid bone in my foot,” he says, demonstrating his surgical knowhow. “I’ve got plates everywhere, even in my cheek. That was needed after a game up here for Hearts. At night I was supposed to be wetting my eldest’s head. The consultant did a good job, going in through the eyebrow so you don’t see the scar.” We’re in the players’ lounge at Pittodrie and some of the trainees, who’ve been listening intently to Naysmith’s narration of a top-level career, are wincing.
“Every time I was selected for a Scotland squad apart from once I got a cap. On that basis, an admin guy at Hampden worked out my total could have been up in the seventies. I’m not greedy. I’d have loved to have got to 50 and of course I’m thrilled with 46. It really is the greatest honour, playing for your country, which is why I get annoyed when there are these dubious call-offs. I understand why the fans get upset when a player who’s declared unfit for an international manages to turn out for his club a few days later. Playing for Scotland sometimes counted against me. At Everton, I’d come back from a double-header for my country feeling pretty good and David Moyes would decide I needed a rest. I was never happy about that.”
While he acknowledges that the club game rools, OK, these days Naysmith believes players should not be allowed to pick and choose their internationals. “There must be some rule we can invoke,” he adds, “because it’s just not right. The chance to play for your country is what hundreds of thousands of boys dream about.” You will have gathered, I think, that he cares rather a lot about the dark blue, which also explains his disappointment with the manner his call of duty for Scotland appears to have ended.
“I’ll never ever retire from playing for Scotland; you just don’t do that. But I haven’t had a chat with Craig [Levein] and to me that’s a bit strange. He’s obviously not phoned me to say: ‘Get yourself fit and you’ll be in my thoughts.’ Equally, he’s never told me: ‘You’re 30-odds now, Gaz, a lot injuries, I’m going to go with the younger guys.’ We just haven’t had the conversation. I got on fine with Craig at Hearts and that just makes it more disappointing there hasn’t been a phone call when I was virtually a permanent fixture for Scotland for ten years.”
Meantime, he gets on with getting fit again. The latest problem is a hamstring. “It’s so frustrating because I started with Aberdeen quite well. I love the city, the club, Craig Brown and Archie Knox, my team-mates and even those cheeky buggers over there,” he says nodding to the under-19s. It was Brown who handed him his international debut while Knox worked with him at Everton and with Scotland. “Being out, I worry I’m letting them down down. They brought me here from Huddersfield Town when I didn’t have a lot of options. But, you know, in football some guys have got to get injuries.”
Naysmith is still boyish-looking, surely more of a big brother to the Pittodrie kids than a father-figure, and yet he’s been a sparky, tough, committed presence in the game since 1996. His older cousin was 16 when he stopped the pigeon run in Loanhead, passing responsibility for their grandad’s buggy to Naysmith. That was the age he stopped too, and yet just a year later, in extraordinary circumstances, he was lining up against the country’s most exotic strike force. At Ibrox, watching from the stand “just for the experience of being around the first team”, he saw one Hearts defender after another being sent off until all four had gone. “I was like: ‘I could be in, next game, who’ve we got again?” Oh, just Celtic in the League Cup: Pierre Van Hoojidonk, Jorge Cadete, Paolo de Canio. Hearts won the tie and Naysmith played a stormer, being voted man-of-the-match. “I got a Coca-Cola mountain-bike from the cup sponsors and it’s still all shiny in my gran’s cupboard. She won’t let anyone ride it.” Naysmith is too modest to say as much but that must be the ambition of his audience of likely lads.
Better still, a Scottish Cup medal. He insists he wasn’t nervous before the 1998 final when the Jambos beat Rangers 2-1. “If Aberdeen got to a final this season I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to sleep beforehand whereas these boys would be fine. When you’re older you worry more.” Not that the procession to silverware in ’98 was trauma-free. “In the semi-final against Falkirk, Kevin McAllister gave me the total runaround, the worst of my career. At half-time Jim Jefferies pinned me against the dressing-room wall: ‘You’re going to cost us the chance of this effing trophy.’” Naysmith was helping Scotland lift the Kirin Cup when Hearts won the Scottish again in 2006 but made it to Hampden for May’s 5-1 hammering of Hibs. “I took my seven-year-old son, Charlie, to show him a proper football experience. He’s a Manchester City fan and, because I’m mates with Joleon Lescott, he’s got used to players’ lounge tickets and car park passes. This was a supporters’ bus from Dalkeith and bacon rolls. He loved the whole day and helped his old man get home.”
In 2000 Naysmith landed a £1.75 million move to Everton, the chance to pit himself against world-class players almost every week ... and to talk doos with Duncan Ferguson. “Folk down south didn’t really get Big Dunc and pigeons. He’d explain about breeding, buying birds at auction, sending them to big races in South Africa then tracking them on the internet and these players would be like: ‘What ... ?’ Guys from London couldn’t understand how deep he was into racing pigeons and they’d laugh at him. In Loanhead it’s a big thing so I understood. I used to ask him: ‘How are your birds getting on?’”
Naysmith loved his time at Goodison. “A family club, with fans who’re proper football people. Under Walter [Smith] we struggled. Bottom of the league, we’d fill the team with defenders to try and grind out results. But we were sold out every game and the supporters never turned on us.” He witnessed the emergence of Wayne Rooney. “There was talk about him going back to when he was in the under-13s: a kid build like a man. He was a confident lad, not arrogant. And when we saw what he could do: wow.”
There were “run-ins” with David Moyes. “Because I wasn’t getting a game, basically. When you’ve been first choice and then you’re not, it’s tough and it’s to do with ego. I got back into the team and was playing well but I got injured again. The manager sympathised. He’d tell the dressing-room they weren’t performing, that I was training really hard and they’d better watch it. Eventually I had to tell him I was leaving. Because of not playing I wasn’t a nice person to be around. He told me I could go with his blessing but that I’d never play for a club as big as Everton again. I don’t think I took that in. And I think I was so wrapped up in my own situation that I left for Sheffield United not really appreciating the good job he was doing. I made a point of telling him later.”
Though he wants to keep playing as long as he can, Naysmith is starting to think about life beyond that. Coaching didn’t appeal before but as he says: “Being forced to watch so many games while being injured you’d think I might have learned something useful.” Moyes must have been instructive; so too Jefferies for those motivational subtleties. Then, currently, there’s Knox – bad cop to Brown’s good. “Once at Everton when I wasn’t playing well Archie told me: ‘It’s perfectly simple, Gaz; there are two choices. You can either be a do-something player or the do-eff-all kind.” Well, that wasn’t the verdict very often on Scotland’s plucky racing pigeon on the left.
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