'I want something special here' - Hearts hero Gary Naysmith on rebuilding his managerial reputation with Edinburgh City
Ambition and desire took Gary Naysmith a long way as a player, mixing it with the best in the English Premier League for seven years and earning 46 caps for Scotland.
The same fire still burns within the former Hearts hero as he reignites his managerial career at upwardly-mobile Edinburgh City.
“I never set specific targets for myself,” says Naysmith. “But, just as I did as a player, I want to get to as high a level as I can.
“I got to a good level as a player, I hope it’s the same in my managerial career but where it will take me, I don’t know. I’m going to do my best to get as high as I can go.
“I actually feel guilty talking about my future, because I’m just delighted Edinburgh City have given me this chance to get back into management.
“I’ve signed for the long term, I’m not just here for the short term. I want to try and build something special here. That’s a commitment from me to the club, just as they’ve made a commitment to me.
“But if you ask me a hypothetical question, I’ll give you a hypothetical answer – I want to manage at as high a level as I can. If I can get there, it will mean I’ve done something right for Edinburgh City.
“By the time I leave the club or when they get rid of me, I want people to say ‘Wow, what a difference he made at that club’. That’s what I want people to be talking about in five or 10 years’ time.”
A flying start
Naysmith has certainly started off on the front foot since his appointment in March after previous City boss James McDonaugh moved into the sporting director role at the club.
Six wins and a draw in the seven League Two matches Naysmith has overseen have taken City into second place in the table. They are 12 points behind runaway leaders Queen’s Park, their opponents at Ainslie Park this afternoon, but crucially seven points clear of fifth spot in the battle for a play-off place.
Just as he has his own sights fixed on bigger and better things, Naysmith is not shy of declaring the progress he believes the club can achieve as they prepare for their return to the revamped Meadowbank Stadium next season.
“I see no reason why Edinburgh City can’t be a Championship club,” adds the 42-year-old.
“It’s two promotions, which seems a long way away. But we are going back to play at Meadowbank, we will also be based there for training and able to use the new facilities.
“If we can get a promotion over the next year or two, then hopefully some kind of full-time plan can be put in place. Whether it’s a hybrid, like Raith Rovers and Airdrie who have some part-time and some full-time players, there can be progression there.
“We want to try and get our youth set-up even better than it is, making sure there is a pathway from the under-18s to the first team squad.
“That will take time but there are loads of things we can look into to expand the club.
“The more successful we are on the pitch, the quicker these things can come to fruition. I’d also hope we can build up the support base, maybe even tempt a few Hearts and Hibs fans along to Meadowbank when they can’t get to see their own teams.
“I want us to be doing well enough that people will want to come along and see what all the fuss is about. That’s my responsibility, that’s where the pressure lies with me.
“The infrastructure is there, we need to get working in the local communities, build up the commercial side as well.
“We were five points off the play-offs when I came in and my primary focus was to make sure we got into that top four.
“I want to make sure we clinch a play-off place as quickly as possible, then we can start thinking about what we can achieve in the rest of this season.”
A League Two title winner in his first managerial job at East Fife, Naysmith had been out of front line coaching since being sacked by Queen of the South towards the end of the 2018-19 campaign.
A return to Hearts, where he retains legendary status as a member of the 1998 Scottish Cup winning team, provided him with a fresh perspective as the Tynecastle club’s loan manager last season.
But Naysmith was always itching to get back into a technical area, having nursed a sense his time in Dumfries had been harshly terminated.
“I think I did a good job at Queen of the South,” he says. “We finished sixth, sixth and then the year I lost my job, if we’d won the last game we would have finished sixth again.
“So for a team with one of the lowest full-time budgets in the Championship, to have got three top-six finishes would have been a good achievement.
“As it was, we lost that last game and went into the relegation play-off. The board decided it was time for a change.
“But if you go back to the end of January in the year I lost the job, we were in the top four and I’d just got Manager of the Month.
“We had knocked Dundee out of the Scottish Cup and only lost to St Johnstone in extra-time in the last 16 of the League Cup.
“So at the end of January, you were actually thinking you couldn’t have done too much better. But three months later I was out the door.
“Yeah, I understand you are judged on results and I think we’d only won one of the last 10 when I went. Timing is a big thing in football. I went on a bad run at a bad time at Queen of the South. Maybe a wee bit of panic crept in with the board.
“If that run had happened at the start of the season, I think they would have given me time to work through it.
“So while I understand it, I feel I wasn’t given the chance to get them out of the first really bad run they’d had in my time as manager.
Back to Gorgie
“I always wanted to get straight back into management but then the opportunity came up at Hearts. I’d obviously been with the club for a long time as a player and I felt it would help my education in football to take on a new role.
“Helping young players in the early stages of their careers is something I’ve always tried to do anyway since I went into management, whether it was loans or your own players at East Fife and Queen of the South. So it was something which always appealed to me.
“After losing my job at Queen of the South, I didn’t expect my next job to be full-time. I felt I would have to, if not build my reputation back up, then build my stock back up.
“What I didn’t plan on, obviously, was the Covid situation and being out of football management for just under two years.”
When the opportunity did present itself, Naysmith didn’t have to think twice about dropping down to League Two again.
“From the outside looking in, I always thought Edinburgh City was an attractive club,” he adds. “They are trying to do things the right way, they are trying to get the structure right off the field.
“I knew they were a club who were going to try and progress. When I was out of work as a manager, I was always looking at clubs and thinking about which jobs would be attractive to me if they came up. Edinburgh City was one of those clubs.
“Basically, I got a phone call from James telling me he would be moving upstairs and that the club was going to restructure off the field.
“He asked if I would be interested, I told him I would. For the first time in my life, I then went on a Zoom meeting with the chairman and the owner.
“I liked what I heard from them and they liked what they heard from me. A deal was tied up quite quickly.
“It’s been a whirlwind, really. It’s great that the results have been going for us but you’re not getting the chance to enjoy them.
“I got home on Tuesday night this week after the win against Brechin and I found it difficult to get to sleep. I’ve always been the same after games, mind you, both as a player and manager.
“I got up at the crack of dawn on Wednesday and watched the game back. Then, straight away, you have to gather all the stuff you can about Queen’s Park for Saturday.”
Learning from the best
Naysmith worked under a veritable Who’s Who of leading managers during his playing career. From Walter Smith, who signed him for Everton from Hearts in a £1.7 million deal in 2000, to Craig Brown, the man who handed him his Scotland debut the same year, he remains influenced by many of them.
“Walter’s man-management was exceptional,” he reflects. “I don’t just mean with his players, but also with every member of staff throughout the club.
“He always had time for everybody. Whether we were struggling or not, he still went out of his way to be the same nice man to all of the people who were trying to help him and his team.
“That was something which I took on board, the way he was respectful of everyone.
“In terms of the intensity I try to bring to training sessions, I took a lot from assistant-managers I worked under like Archie Knox at Everton and Billy Brown at Hearts.
“In terms of preparation for games, I think back to how thorough David Moyes was in terms of his knowledge of the opposition and how he wanted us to set up at Everton. I learned a lot from him about the analysis side of the game.
“You pick up things from everyone. Perhaps the least well known manager I played under was Kevin Blackwell at Sheffield United but he made me the fittest I probably ever was in my career.
“A lot of my old managers are still on the end of a phone, like Jim Jefferies and Craig Brown. I still call them ‘gaffer’ now.
“But ultimately you have to be your own man when you become a manager. You have to put your own stamp on it.”
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