Hearts’ Steven Naismith: This is the toughest decision of my career

There is scarcely anything in this world that would make Hearts fans happier than the sight of their talismanic attacker, their most valuable player, pictured standing at Tynecastle in a post from the official club Twitter account along with the words: “Steven Naismith has pen put to paper on a contract to sign for Hearts permanently”.

It’s what the supporters have wanted throughout this season and they’re sure to continue pining for such a reality as time ticks down on both the player’s current contract with parent club Norwich City and the loan deal which keeps him in Edinburgh for the remainder of the 2018/19 season.

The form of Craig Levein’s side completely slumped when Naismith went down with a knee injury minutes into their Betfred Cup semi-final clash with Celtic. Prior to that moment supporters had joked about their side winning the treble, then everything began to unravel. Starting with that 3-0 defeat to Brendan Rodgers’ side, in nine matches without him they registered only one victory, drew another two and lost the rest. They were beaten 5-0 twice, dropped from top of the table to fifth place and exited the League Cup.

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Though the previous momentum has yet to be re-established, and likely won’t be this campaign, things have significantly improved since Naismith’s return. There have been away victories at Hibs and Kilmarnock, and they’re into the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup where they’ll be heavily favoured to progress to another semi-final after a draw away to Partick Thistle. Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Motherwell was a blow, though the Jam Tarts performed fairly well against a side who went into the match off the back of five successive league victories and were only defeated thanks to some poor finishing and a dreadful goalkeeping error.

Steven Naismith is wanted by Hearts, but has offers in America's MLS. Pic: SNS

Even if this campaign doesn’t provide what it once promised to deliver, having Naismith stick around for the long haul will significantly boost the club’s chances of improving next season. Levein knows exactly that and has offered the forward a deal in which to make Gorgie Road his new permanent home. Up until last week they would have felt pretty confident too. Naismith wanted to return to Scotland when seeking a loan move from Norwich in January last year, and with Rangers showing little interest in taking back another prodigal son, Hearts were able to beat former club Kilmarnock to his signature. Were this battle fought on Scottish soil alone, they would be the clear favourites.

However, it’s since emerged that an opportunity has presented itself to leave Scotland behind and start a new adventure in Major League Soccer, the highest level of football in America. David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, current Rangers boss Steven Gerrard and a number of other high-profile players in recent years have made the move to live and work in the western world’s most dominant country. Now the lad from Irvine, Ayrshire, has been given that chance too.

“I’d say it’s probably the toughest one I’ve had to make I my career,” the attacker admitted. “When I’ve had chats with the manager, it’s clear that Hears are doing all they can. They can’t do much more. That’s one side if I want to do that. The manager has spoken about life after football and stuff like that so that’s all there. But I just want to make sure I make the right decision.”

There’s positives and negatives from Naismith’s outlook for Hearts fans to take. On the one hand, the MLS is not a league he’s ever thought about playing in, and a move there is not something he’s dying to try out. He is not instructing his agent to find him a team, any team, across the pond so he can complete any sort of ambition that he’s harboured for years.

“I’m not actively looking to find a move to there,” he insists. “It’s more that at this stage of my career I don’t think there’s going to be another opportunity to do it. It’s whether you want it or not rather than ‘this club is in for me and I want to go’. That’s the decision I’ve got to make really.”

There’s also his insistence that money doesn’t matter any more to him. Wages and ambition were what used to motivate his career, but now that he’s past his 32nd birthday and knows there are only a few good years left, maybe even just one or two, it’s more about the situation rather than how fat his weekly pay packet is.

“I’ve said it before, when you are younger it’s about money and playing at the highest level,” he said. “That’s 90 per cent of a young player’s decision. As you get older things change and it’s more a case of ‘do I fancy that? ‘I enjoy it more now. Every older player I’ve played with has said ‘play as long as you can’. It’s a mad business that one day you’ll wake up and won’t be able to do it again. Simple as that.”

On the other hand, Naismith has played his entire career in British football. He rose through the ranks at Kilmarnock, played well enough to catch the eye of Rangers, used the club’s financial meltdown in 2012 to engineer a move to Everton in the English Premier League, joined Norwich in their relegation campaign, and returned north of the border to sign a loan contract with Hearts. He’s playing on the international stage with younger team-mates who are trying new things and experiencing different cultures. There’s a little bit of envy there. If they can do that, why can’t he?

“I’ve only been to the States on pre-season. It’s just the life-experience,” he added. “You look at young players like (David) Bates going to Germany. Ryan Gauld going to Portugal. I really admire that. Back in the day I wish maybe I’d done that but I’ve enjoyed every bit of my career, and I do think ‘why would I not try it? That’s what I’m swaying with.”

The image of the MLS as a glorified retirement home for British stars is receding, and for his friends and family back home it would still be possible to follow his exploits if he did decide to choose a new adventure rather than remaining at Tynecastle. It also means he won’t be necessarily out of sight, out of mind in regards to how he’s perceived by the Scotland national team’s managerial staff. Johnny Russell has remained in Alex McLeish’s squad despite his switch to Sporting Kansas City, though Hearts boss Levein has been quick to stress that it typically works against a player with the desire to represent his country.

“The gaffer will do all he can to put me off I suppose,” Naismith answered with a smile.

The player insists he’ll take his time. There are still over three months remaining between now and the end of the season and another month on top of that to when his deal with Norwich will expire. However, he knows that both the staff at Hearts and the club’s fans are hanging on this decision.

“I’ve not given myself a deadline but I’m realistic that I can’t drag it out too much,” he admits. “But I’ll take as much time as I need. As a person and a player, I’m quite structured and I like to know what’s happening nest week and the week after so that obviously plays on my mind as well. I don’t know what I want. I’m fortunate enough that I can sit and enjoy my football. Like most of the moves I’ve made in my career, one day I’ll wake up and think ‘that’s the right thing to do’ and I’ll pursue that.”