'Best manager I've had' – how Steven Naismith saved Hearts player's career as Scotland Under 21 chance beckons
Scoring a goal with his first touch as he made his Scotland U-21 debut in 2006, Steven Naismith was in a hurry to impress.
Back then Aidan Denholm was barely out of nappies, but the Hearts youngster was similarly minded when he burst onto the European scene this term, making his mark as a substitute in the away match against Rosenborg before being given a start as the capital side bested the Norwegians at Tynecastle.
And, while he says he has had to learn patience this term, with Naismith the man offering the guidance, he remains just as determined to hit the ground running if he is handed his first cap away to either Belgium on Friday or Hungary on Tuesday.
"Obviously, I want to get my first cap but to be selected for the squad is amazing. We are doing quite well in the group but it's going to be a challenging two games. With the squad we have I still believe we can go and win them.”
It is something the 20-year-old could not have imagined playing any part in when he was released by the Gorgie club last season. Facing the reality of holding down a job and playing part-time football, it is well-documented that he was rescued by his former B team coach when Naismith was named as the new permanent gaffer, calling up Denholm and inviting him back.
"I owe him everything,” he said of the man who has taken Hearts to within two points of third in the Premiership after they bounced back from consecutive defeats to Celtic and then Rangers, with victories over Livingston and Motherwell.
"He's been brilliant. He's been a breath of fresh air. I worked with him in the B team and I loved the style he had us playing. I have always got on with him very well. Even off the pitch, he knew straight away if something was up or whatever.
"When I got told I had to go, he was the first one to talk to me and was straight on the phone. I then got a trial at Wigan but when I was coming back up the road with my dad he called me to say he had got the job and he didn’t want to let me go. He's been the biggest influence on me."
A man who was eligible to play for England and Wales, Naismith earned his spot on the Scotland Roll of Honour with 51 caps and was thrilled to see Denholm taking the first steps towards trying to emulate him.
"He's not mentioned he scored with his first touch for the Under 21s! I'm surprised about that because I thought he would have. But, he phoned me to say I was in [Scot Gemmill’s U-21 squad] and he was delighted for me. Now I just need to try and get a cap. That would be brilliant.
"I've had a lot of brilliant managers but he has been the best. Not just on the pitch, just off it. I can't speak highly enough of him. But I am really surprised he's not mentioned the scoring with his first touch story!”
Having made such a strong impression earlier in the season Denholm’s game time has been more limited of late, with one start against Ross County and a substitute appearance in the recent Viaplay Cup semi final his only first team action since August. But, knowing how close he came to missing out completely, the lifelong Hearts support is willing to keep working at his game and biding his time.
“Steven explains it all so well and when he speaks to you, you listen. He is good for me and he has a long term plan for me which requires me to be really patient. He knows that when a chance comes I will be ready if he puts me in. I played at Hampden and that was a great experience. I really enjoyed that and it was great that he showed faith in me to play me in a semi final. That wouldn’t have seemed possible a year ago. So, seeing my family there as I came on at Hampden in a semi final was brilliant.”
And, while patience has been in short supply as some fans grew frustrated with a stuttering start to the campaign, Denholm retains faith in his gaffer, his team-mates and himself as he looks forward to the remainder of the season for club and country.
“Look, I’m a Hearts fan myself so I want us to do well and obviously when we don’t get results it isn’t great but the fans are passionate and they get their voice across. We have not had an easy run of form. It’s been a win, a draw, a loss and we need to start finding that consistency. I believe in the team that we’ve got. I believe we can easily do that.”
Currently in competition with the likes of Beni Baningime and Cammy Devlin, he says both have helped him advance as a player, offering insight and expertise. But with so much strength and depth in the squad he says he needs to work hard to ensure he is ready when his next opportunity comes along.
“The quality is unbelievable sometimes. But that’s when everyone is fit. At the start everybody wasn’t, which gave me a chance to impress. Luckily enough I did that but it’s up to me to be patient now. If there are injuries or illnesses then I will be waiting and I’ll be ready.”
And, gaining international experience can only help. “100 per cent! That’s one reason I want to get a cap. If I start or get on then I’ll be ready.”
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.