In his first appearance at Ibrox since walking away from the liquidated Rangers in 2012, Steven Naismith ran a gauntlet of hate. Just back from injury, he was one of the Hearts substitutes in February and instead of escaping to the middle of the park, he was greeted with a chorus of abuse from the home fans whenever he ventured out of the dug-out to warm up.
Naismith will never be forgiven by some Rangers supporters for not sticking with the club during their financial meltdown, but the Scotland attacker is phlegmatic about the flak he took.
“I would probably use the word pantomime,” Naismith says. “People’s feelings are what they are. But when you’re in the match there are more important things than a bit of abuse. You go to most stadiums nowadays and get it. It does not really affect me and the main thing was our performance. But it was just how I imagined and it was probably worse that I was a sub and warming up.”
He insists that warm welcome had no impact on the way Hearts played that day, but he concedes it was a poor display in a match Rangers won 2-0. “We never got ourselves in the game at all and Rangers comfortably beat us.”
They return this afternoon – controversially, for the third time in the league this season – looking for improvement, but know they will be up against a side wounded by last weekend’s Scottish Cup humbling at the hands of Celtic and the in-fighting precipitated by that defeat.
An Ibrox fans’ group has said its members will opt for a silent protest in response to the latest internal shambles at their club, but that brooding hostility is only likely to crank up the antipathy heaped on Naismith, who had been linked with a return to Ibrox prior to signing his loan deal with Hearts in January, but insists there was no deal close to being brokered.
He accepts his lot, maintaining that, “football-wise”, his decision to flee Rangers as the club imploded and play for Everton and Norwich City while others remained and completed a groundhoppers’ tour of the Scottish lower leagues, was the smart choice.
“Football-wise definitely,” he adds. “It was the hardest decision I have ever had to make in my career. But when you look at what I have managed to achieve since personally, it has been a good one.”
The choice has also been vindicated by the fact that six years on there is still no real stability at Rangers, on or off the field, with club stalwarts being moved on behind the scenes as managerial mis-steps and players’ revolts continue to produce negative headlines.
“There is collateral damage and that was always going to happen,” said the 31-year-old striker. “And the more the process went on the more you could see it was going to happen and that you were irrelevant in the whole situation. That’s the saddest thing. There are so many good people.
“I subsequently went on to Everton, where the club is filled with these people who drive the club. Who, when guys like Marouane Fellaini and Kevin Mirallas come in, they can’t not understand what it’s about because these people are there day in, day out. And that is the biggest problem that comes with the collateral damage [at Rangers].
“It is sad to see. Take away being a fan or being at the club before or anything like that, just for Scottish football. There are a lot of good clubs in good places and that could make the league very entertaining so hopefully it can get back to that.”
At Hearts he sees a club in the Everton mould. A club that endured its own issues, like Rangers, but unlike the Govan club it has rediscovered its heart and soul, albeit it has endured a tough season, which Naismith hopes they can still end with some memorable results to send them into the next campaign with more belief.
“It is run very well and without being massive risk-takers they are pushing the boundaries as far as they can, which is great to see. The squad is good, the facilities are good and everything is done to a professional standard and driven by how we can get better, which is a good thing.
“You talk to [owner Ann Budge] and nothing really fazes her, even if football isn’t really her ground of expertise in terms of being on the pitch and doing it. She delegates well and puts good people in the right positions which has definitely brought the club further forward than it has been in the past five or six years.”
Which is why, while Naismith knew he had to leave Rangers six years ago, he is keen to extend his stay at Tynecastle. Under contract at Norwich for another season, he hasn’t ruled out coming to some deal with the Championship side that would allow him to start next term in Edinburgh.
“Definitely,” he says, “I have enjoyed it, I have loved it. If circumstances allow then it is definitely something that would interest me but I give the same answer every time and it is up to Norwich. To be honest with you, I have never been in this situation.
“I don’t totally understand how it is going to play out but come the last few weeks of the season I am sure I will be having a conversation with Norwich to try to get to a conclusion as quickly as possible for everybody. And that’s whether it involves me being part of the plans for next season or not. It is whether it means me leaving permanently or on loan. I think getting a bit of clarity is what everyone needs.”
The Rangers fans may not agree with everything he has said or done in the past, but they will surely agree with that.