Stephen Naismith is in good company
HOPE springs internal, never mind eternal, for Steven Naismith to suggest that Scotland could defy all the odds in Dortmund tonight.
“Germany are world champions and this is a huge challenge for us,” says the Everton striker of the sides’ Euro 2016 Group D opener. “[But] it’s the first game and a lot can happen. Hopefully we can catch them cold and get a result. Argentina managed it… so hopefully I can play like [Angel] Di Maria and we’ll be all right.”
Naismith is joshing, of course, and is unlikely to be bought for £60 million by Manchester United any time soon, as Di Maria was. The Argentine winger scored one and set up the other three in a 4-2 win over Germany in a midweek friendly. But it might be a while before Di Maria nets in three consecutive Premier League games; precisely how Naismith’s club season has roared to life. Indeed, the form of the Scot, 28 next week, could allow him to claim he can be placed on a level with another of the game’s gushed-over attackers – Chelsea’s £30m summer acquisition Diego Costa, who is the only other player in England’s top flight to score in his team’s first three league matches this season.
Naismith is no name-dropper. Neither, though, do his confidence levels drop when he is confronted by the stellar performers that pack out the highest-paying league in the world. That wasn’t the case for an extended period after the forward joined the then David Moyes-led Everton in the summer of 2012. He arrived as a free agent, having declined to have his contract TUPE’d over to Charles Green’s Rangers when the Ibrox club was condemned to liquidation. His worth to Roberto Martinez now is priceless, with the forward always of a mind that he could strike gold in the gilt-edged Premier League.
“I always believed I could play at this level. I didn’t envisage a change of manager and perhaps how long it did take me, but I definitely believed I could go down there and play,” he says. “In the past I’ve played in the Champions League and in big games for my country and I’ve always showed up well. I take a bit of time to settle into new surroundings and that’s what happened here. I feel confident in anyone’s company now.
“Even when [Samuel] Eto’o joined. You are in awe of him because of what he achieved in the game, but you link well in training and you settle. When I first moved I definitely felt a bit inferior. It’s been a problem for Scots boys in the past and I was the same. Looking around the squad you think to yourself, ‘should I be here?’ But as you get more comfortable with the lads on and off the field things begin to go for you. I feel I belong here now.”
The sense of entitlement for the 29-times capped Naismith surely can be extended to the spearhead role for his country. A player who has scored against Chelsea and Arsenal in his previous two games pretty much commands the solitary striking role in Strachan’s system. Especially when, through a combination of injuries and indifferent form, it feels as if chief rival for the role, Steven Fletcher, has yet really to return from the international exile he ended a year ago.
“It has been a good start to the season for me,” Naismith says. “I enjoyed my pre-season and I’ve managed to kick on from there. I’ve managed to score a few goals. I started off pre-season as the striker but since then I’ve dropped a little deeper into the hole.
“I haven’t done anything different at all. I’m just another year older and another year wiser. I’m more familiar with surroundings and I’m settled. The last six to eight months of last season I played well and in almost every game. I’ve been lucky enough to kick on. It’s down to confidence. That comes from the manager who allows me to express myself. He knows my best position and he’s given me my chance there. He knows I can get up and down the pitch — but if I play wider I maybe lose aspects of my game. I grew up as a striker and he knows I still have a knack of getting in the box. He knows I will defend for the team but he still gives me the freedom going forward.
“When you are playing against big teams, for your club or for your country, you want to test yourself. I feel confident enough now that when we do play them we are looking for a result. We drew with Arsenal recently and it felt like a defeat. That’s how far I’ve come.”
Naismith talks about how age brings with it the game intelligence “to relax and make the right decisions”, instead of being “too eager” or in too much of a “rush to play the pass”. Yet, the attacker always had the craft and considered approach to seem more than able even when confronted by the most daunting opponents. He is easily among Scotland’s most important players in the Westfalenstadion then, where he will seek to add to his three international goals.
“I definitely feel 100 per cent prepared for a game like this,” the Everton man says. “Playing against Spain when they were talked about as being the best national side ever definitely gives you confidence and I was fortunate enough to score against them too [in a 3-2 Euro 2012 qualifying defeat in 2010]. And I made my first start against Holland [in a World Cup qualifier] and gave them a good run. We were unfortunate that a late goal cost us.
“You have to take belief from that. We’re maybe not as pleasing on the eye as these world-class teams but if we tried to be, the scoreline would be very different. We have to play to our strengths and that’s what the manager works on day in, day out. He went right back to basics from the start and built on that. All the training we do, there’s always a reason behind it so it’s not as if you ever wonder what you’re coming to do, you just slip right back into the same routines and that’s definitely helped. No matter how boring it can be sometimes, he doesn’t care. He’ll do it so it’s in our minds and becomes second nature. That’s played a big part in allowing for a seamless transition when there are injuries and guys come in.”
Naismith has made a seamless transition from likeable, hard-working and talented player to a footballing Mother Teresa. This season he has earned universal plaudits for giving away tickets to unemployed Everton fans. In the past he has publicised charities working with the homeless and injured army veterans, and he is a spokesman for Dyslexia Scotland – he grew up with the condition. He recoils at the notion he is on a one-man crusade to rehabilitate the reputation of top-end footballers, now generally derided as an avaricious, decadent and uncaring breed.
“Overall, players get a bad reputation for no reason at times,” he says. “The majority come through a working-class background and have a bit of talent that they end up fulfilling. There’s probably a small minority who get that reputation which seems to affect football in general. For me, football has been good to me. It’s been a hobby that’s become a career. And these aren’t big things to do. Each year, I’ll try to do different things that don’t compromise my training or my week-to-week commitments to the club, but can make a difference.
“The hardest part was working out how to get the tickets to the people who deserve them, which is why we spoke to Job Centre Plus. They could regulate it better than I could. It’s worked out well. The biggest thing was hearing it from the people getting the tickets the difference they say it makes to them. I’ve met them at the games and they’ve had a good deal so far, with the Arsenal 2-2 and the Chelsea 6-3.”
Naismith doesn’t make a big deal of being a public face for Dyslexia Scotland who can offer private comfort to those youngsters struggling with the condition.
“I found it hard at school although I’m not terribly bad,” he says. “It was just a bit difficult to read, you’d be worried about doing it in front of people, but as I’ve got older, I love reading now. I know how it feels. I got away with it a bit because I was good at football at school, but a lot of people hold it in and get themselves worked up, whereas it should be nothing to be embarrassed about.”
Naismith is a man with so much to be proud about.