Steven Naismith was still making a name for himself in the game when he first encountered Neil Lennon. The latter, then with Nottingham Forest, was in his mid-30s and at the other end of his playing career.
Lennon had already been there and done it with Leicester City and Celtic. Perhaps he saw something of himself in the fiery, determined Naismith, who had arrived at the first crossroads of his career while with Kilmarnock.
He made a beeline towards Naismith after a pre-season friendly in July 2007, the English club having emerged 3-1 victors.
Speculation was rife at the time linking Naismith with moves south of the Border and to Rangers. Lennon knew the pull of England as well as the draw of the Old Firm.
“After the game he said: ‘look, make sure you make the right choice for you and don’t be forced in to any move’,” recalled Naismith yesterday. “As a young guy that’s nice to hear from an older pro who’s been there and done it.”
Lennon, pictured, had not inadvertently convinced Naismith to join Rangers – there were other factors at play, with a principal consideration being the player’s boyhood affection for the Ibrox club. “But that (going to Rangers) was the end result,” noted Naismith, who crosses paths with Lennon again this evening when Hibs host Hearts.
In helping Naismith decide his future Lennon planted the seeds for a bleak harvest he was later to reap after becoming Celtic manager. Naismith scored twice in a 4-2 win for Rangers against Lennon’s side in September 2011 having become an established star at Ibrox and regular irritant to their city rivals. Several years earlier Lennon pushed aide club loyalties in order to help shape a young man’s career. Naismith remains grateful.
“It shows the type of character he is,” he said. “He obviously takes a lot of stick but also, solely on football, I think he gives solid advice and the right advice to anybody involved.”
Naismith has not forgotten this as he stands at another crossroads. It is unlikely Lennon will think to offer any career advice after tonight’s meeting – or that Naismith will seek it out. Lennon knows the Hearts player, their talisman, is now fully capable of making his own decisions – and he will.
But it was different more than a decade ago. Naismith’s heart was already set on Ibrox. Lennon’s advice to do what was right for his own career he interpreted as: sign for Rangers. He did exactly that only a few weeks later on the last day of the transfer window. He said: “I loved it at Rangers. That’s all I wanted to do so I think maybe that put a few clubs off pursuing any interest that they may have had at the start.”
Even then Naismith was a determined individual. But he took all advice on board. “That was the character I was,” he said. “I’d listen and pick the bones out of it in terms of what was good for me and what was bad for me. It’s stood me in good stead. So that’s my experience of Neil Lennon.”
Less direct encounters since have been on those occasions when Naismith has come up against Lennon teams, most recently last season when he scored the winner in the final Edinburgh derby of the campaign at Tynecastle.
Naismith adores these occasions and, having experienced local clashes the length and breadth of the country, is an experienced derby campaigner. Few players, if any, can have experience of Ayrshire, Old Firm, Merseyside, East Anglia and Edinburgh derbies.
This variety of experiences is evidence of someone open to new adventures. It has not been missed by Hearts fans that the on-loan Naismith can sign a pre-contract for another club, theirs they hope, as of next week.
The player himself won’t be drawn, not yet at least. It does sound as if a move abroad appeals. If not now, then it certainly sounds like something the 32-year-old wishes to taste before he hangs up his boots.
“It could go on,” Naismith warned those Hearts fans hoping for some good news early in 2019. “It’ll go on as long as it goes on. Every move I’ve had there’s come a point when I’ve woken up and thought: ‘I’m going to do that because I want to do that’. I’ve touched on it a few times, there’s so much more to it. I don’t want to sit in ten years’ time and think: ‘I wish I’d gone abroad’. I couldn’t tell you whether that’s right or wrong at the moment. It’s more I don’t want to live with regret.
“As a footballer you get to a day when you wake up and you can’t play football any more – simple as,” he added. “That doesn’t happen in many industries. On top of that I don’t want to look back and think ‘I wish I’d just done that’. But I’m having a great time just now at Hearts. Like I said to the manager, I could see myself being here in the future, easily. I enjoy it, my routine’s good but it’s more about ticking off the ‘right I’m no’ doing that, I’m no’ doing that’ list. Then I’ll come to the end point (and decide what to do).”