The Hearts players may be enjoying less peace and quiet now that Steven Naismith is back in the fray but manager Craig Levein says he is finding it easier to drift off to sleep at night.
Describing the on-loan Norwich player as “the heartbeat” of his side, the Hearts boss is relieved to be welcoming him back into the starting line-up against Aberdeen today, saying he has already made a positive impact on a squad that has been through a torrid time in recent weeks as injuries piled up, confidence dipped and their points tally and league standing bore the brunt.
“It’s like getting a bit of our identity back,” said Levein, who is hoping some frank discussions in the wake of last week’s 5-0 thumping by Livingston, combined with the presence of the Scotland international back in the team, will help his men up their game.
“I’m not guaranteeing we’ll win because he’s coming back into the team. But I feel better about it. Which helps me sleep at night. It feels like we’re getting more than just one player back,” Levein said.
“It feels like we’re adding a very good footballer – plus a player who cajoles, helps and keeps everybody on their toes.
“He’s incessant. He actually does my head in sometimes! He’s just barking all the time. But that’s great for me because I don’t have to do it and me having a go is different from having one player constantly – and I mean constantly – on the case of all the other players. That’s what he does. Constantly.
“He’s almost the heartbeat of the team. He leads by example in how he plays. And he talks, which is very unusual for football players these days. You get very few players who actually talk on the field. So, he’ll bring us the equivalent of one-and-a-half players. Or even 1.75 players …”
The 32-year-old is also a key piece in the Hearts jigsaw, linking the midfield with attack, while also posing a goal threat, something that has been lacking since he hobbled off injured in the League Cup semi-final. They have won just one of the nine games they have played without him and drawn a blank in six of them. But with the knee cartilage operation a success and his mind and body ready for the challenge of turning Hearts’ fortunes around and getting back to the kind of form that saw them lead the Premiership for the first few months, his manager is ready to give him a starting berth at Pittodrie today.
“He will start,” said Levein. “I’m not in a position where I can ease people back in gently. We’ve had another couple of injuries this week, to [Craig] Wighton and [Harry] Cochrane, adding to our problems, but the plus side is Steven coming back – and that will help everybody.
“You saw Christophe [Berra] coming back after being out for three or four months – and he went straight back in. Because he’s an experienced player, he just knows what he’s doing. He also knows that, at this level, he’s one of the best players in the league – so he just goes in and does what he does. Steven will be the same.”
While there have been setbacks, with injuries to Jimmy Dunne, Clevid Dikamona and shorter term knocks for Wighton and Cochrane, the return of both Berra and now Naismith, with Uche Ikpeazu and John Souttar expected back after the winter shutdown, offers the club a sense that there is some light at the end of the tunnel.
“We are getting there and when we get Uche and John back, we’ll feel a lot better,” explained Levein. “We talk about John as a defender but he starts a lot of our attacks. It’s no secret that we’ve struggled to score goals.”
“But this season is so weird,” added the Tynecastle boss. “By this time, normally, Celtic are, or have been in recent seasons, quite far clear and everybody else is jockeying for position. This year, everybody seems to have a shot at being at the top or near the top.
“We started well and we’ve fallen away. Hibs started poorly and are coming a little bit stronger. Aberdeen are the same. Kilmarnock had a poor start and they’ve picked up. Celtic have been more unpredictable than normal and Rangers under Steven [Gerrard] are a new team almost, so you’re waiting to see what they’re going to do. It’s resulted in this kind of big pile of teams sitting just off the top.
“We’ve hardly picked up any points recently but we’re still right in the mix. So I feel really good. Steven’s coming back, Christophe’s back and we’ll get the other boys back. People will say ‘it’s been unlucky, we’ve lost good players’, but what hasn’t happened is somebody hasn’t shot away and almost won the league by January, which has happened in the past. We’re still in there and that’s the thing that’s really pleasing.”