Craig Levein claims to have forgotten the furore created by Steven Naismith in the summer of 2012, but the player’s words and deeds have proved more enduring in the minds of the Ibrox faithful.
Hearts’ loan signing from Norwich City enraged Rangers fans when he departed the club under a cloud, having successfully lodged an objection against his contract being transferred from the old, liquidated company, claiming he was “disappointed and angry that Rangers Football Club no longer exists in its current form”. The fact he added: “My loyalty is with Rangers, not with Sevco” further inflamed the situation and he was labelled a traitor by large sections of the Ibrox support.
The Scotland international, who grew up a Rangers fan, walked away, joining Everton as a free agent and while he has since described the episode as one of the biggest regrets of his career, there is a section of the Ibrox support that has refused to forgive and forget.
Which is why he could be in for a hostile reception if he can overcome a tight hamstring and make his competitive return to the ground, for Hearts, tomorrow afternoon.
His current manager, who has had to make do without his services for the past couple of games, is unperturbed by the past, though. Confident that Naismith can handle any antipathy that emanates from the stands, he says his only concern is whether the 31-year-old attacker can navigate the match without exacerbating his injury.
“I haven’t even thought about that,” said Levein. “One of the reasons I say it’s good we can go to Ibrox with players like Naismith and [fellow former Ger, Kyle] Lafferty is that they can handle everything. They’ve played in bigger arenas than this. Steven is an experienced player.
“It won’t faze him at all. In all honesty, it has not been in my head. It has just been whether his hamstring is at a point where it can get through the game without any further injury. Regards the further injury thing, we have 12 or 13 games to go, and having him out for a longer period of time is the thing that worries me more than anything. So we’ll see how he gets on.
“But, players like him, they’re not fazed, not nervous, not worried about playing at the venue. They just go into these games thinking: ‘I need to be at the top of my game today’. They’ll take the ball under pressure, and when an opportunity arises there’s no fear.
“So, I am not interested [in any negativity that may greet Naismith]. My only thing is if Steven is going to be fit or not. If he is, I can pitch him in without worrying about anything. He is experienced enough to deal with whatever happens.”
In Naismith’s absence, Hearts have managed to progress to the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup but, on league duty, proved unable to secure more than a point away to Ross County last weekend. There was a further blow in Dingwall, as Arnaud Djoum suffered a snapped Achilles tendon. But with just one defeat in 16 games and an impressive haul of 11 clean sheets in that same period, Levein says Hearts will still travel west with plenty of belief.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he added. “I like going to play these matches against the best teams. I always think it’s a test of character for the players. I know Rangers aren’t at their absolute best just now. [Manager] Graeme [Murty] has a work in progress going on there, but they’ve definitely improved since the window. They have brought some quality players in so it’s a test for our players to see where they are mentally. A couple of teams have gone there this season and won, so let’s see if we can do that.”
There are chinks in the Rangers armour, especially at home where they have suffered five league defeats this term, compared to just two on the road. While they have won ten of their Premiership away games, they had triumphed in just six on their own turf.
That offers Hearts encouragement, as does the way Murty’s men played against Hamilton last weekend. They won but the 5-3 scoreline hints at frailties. “I watched the game last week and it was the most bizarre football match I have ever seen,” said Levein. “I have never seen a match with so many mistakes in it. To be fair, some of it was brilliant but both teams also made unbelievable mistakes. I’m hoping they do that again on Saturday but I doubt very much that will be the case.”