Robbie Neilson confirms Steven Naismith as his Hearts captain
Among the first decisions Robbie Neilson made when returning to Tynecastle as manager last month was resolving to retain Steven Naismith as skipper.
Neilson did not know Naismith personally other than as a combative opponent stretching back to the first occasion when they came up against each other 15 years ago. But having admired his leadership qualities from afar he saw no reason to re-allocate the captain’s armband despite a clutch of alternatives, including former skipper Christophe Berra and Craig Gordon, the veteran goalkeeper now in his second spell at the club.
The original decision to award the captaincy to Naismith was made amid controversial circumstances. Daniel Stendel, Neilson’s short-lived predecessor, stripped Berra of his club captain status at the start of the year and ordered him to train with the youths. The centre-half went on loan to Dundee while Stendel’s reign stuttered along before coming to a halt, along with everything else, in March. The German has since left the club while Berra has been recalled and seems set to feature in the first-team plans for the new season. Nevertheless, Neilson has chosen to stick with Naismith. Others will be expected to share the burden of responsibility.
“At this moment in time Steven Naismith will continue as the captain,” the manager confirmed.
“I have spoken to Steven a few times. I know him as a player, not personally, but having spoken to him he is very motivated.
“We have a strong leadership group. We have Christophe Berra, Craig Gordon, Craig Halkett and John Souttar. We also have Liam Boyce and Peter Haring. There are a lot of big characters in there.
“You need that at a club of this size,” he added. “I have spoken to them all individually and they are all positive about coming back.
“They are positive about their role within the club. For me it comes down to two things. One, performing day-in day-out on the training field and setting an example. And two, helping the young kids to deal with the pressure of playing at a big club.”
He can play on for Scotland
Neilson sees no reason why Naismith cannot spearhead a promotion challenge while also adding to his current total of 52 Scotland caps and ten goals. National team manager Steve Clarke seemed to dash the hopes of the likes of Naismith last month when suggesting it would be a hard to pick a player in form in the Championship over one in form in the top-flight.
It will be difficult for Naismith and others, such as Souttar, to press for inclusion in the squad for September’s double-header against Israel and Czech Republic. The Championship – if the Championship is what it is for Hearts – is not scheduled to kick off until 17 October, which is also just after a triple-header that begins with the crucial Euro 2020 semi-final play-off at Hampden against Israel. Naismith and co cannot hope to be match fit by then. Nonetheless, Neilson believes their long term international futures should not be affected by having dropped down a level.
“I don’t think playing in the Championship will stop him [Naismith] being involved with Scotland and there are a few others,” said Neilson.
“I would expect Craig Gordon to be around the national team. We have Michael Smith and Liam Boyce with Northern Ireland.
“John Souttar is also there and I would like [Craig] Halkett to be a round about it too. [Aaron] Hickey is there. And you have Steven who has been phenomenal for a number of years. Whether we are playing Championship or Premiership these guys will be round about the international scene.”
Four games in ten days
Of course, their cases will be strengthened by Hearts excelling on the pitch. Neilson can only prepare for what the fixture list maps out and the only one published to date does not feature Hearts. As it stands, the Premiership will begin without them. The Tynecastle side are expected to take the Championship by storm given their resources compared to those of other teams. Dundee, for example, who were expected to be one of Hearts’ main promotion rivals, are likely to be a diminished outfit as Covid-19 related cutbacks begin to bite. Dunfermline, meanwhile, have just sold their top goalscorer, Kevin Nisbet, to Hibs. Neilson still believes he needs to strengthen the squad for the very idiosyncratic challenges presented by the Championship.
“You can be on Astro, or you can be at Arbroath,” he said. “It’s about finding a way to win games and bringing that belief to the players that they can do it.
“I think we have a core of a really good team. We just need to add two or three players just to give ourselves a different dimension.”
The last time Hearts were in the Championship in 2014-15 an opening unbeaten run of 20 matches helped Neilson’s side streak towards the title. Falkirk were the first team to inflict a league defeat on them in January.
“The aim this time is to go 21 games!” he joked. “It’s easier said than done. For me the main aim is just to win the first game and take it from there.”
Neilson seemed to suggest that a games schedule has already been drawn up even though the lower tier fixture lists have not yet been published.
“In football you can look too far ahead,” he said. “For me, a good pre-season and then make sure you win the first game and build from there. If you look at the schedule the start of the Championship season is going to be quite intense with four games in ten days. We have to be ready for that.”
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