The backbone of Scotland’s squad contains an all-too-generous smattering of players it would hardly be said have their best days in front of them. Darren Fletcher, Shaun Maloney, Alan Hutton, Steven Fletcher and Steven Naismith all once played at English clubs that pitched for leading places in that country’s exalted top flight but are unlikely to do so again. In the case of Naismith, leaving Everton in January for a Norwich City side that surprised no-one by suffering relegation from the Premier League means the attacker must now steel himself for second tier football for the first time in his career.
At 29, he refuses to consider that he has hastened his journey beyond the brow of the hill that players look to ascend and remain upon for as long as possible by making an £8.5 million switch six months ago. “Norwich City is just another chapter. I feel as if I’m in my peak years,” said the player, who will hope to play to his peak against France in Metz this evening. “People used to look at thirtysomethings as being beyond their best years but if you look at most of the top players now they’re anything from 28 to 33.
“It’s a good time for me. I’ve probably got more knowledge now of nutrition and understanding my body. Your weekly programme is much more structured and you know what works for you. As a youngster you try things because it’s meant to be good but it doesn’t actually have a great affect for you. I’m pretty comfortable with where I’m at.
“When you’re young and inexperienced you eat what you like and run about and it works but as you get older you want to play as long as you can and be in the best shape. Clubs are also getting much more clued up with sports science and dieticians who have so much more knowledge and power.
“When I was at Rangers and David Weir was there he always told me to play for as long as I could and I spoke to Kris Boyd recently who said you realise you want to play as long as you can. And when I first started out Alan Mahood was an older player and he was the same. You also start to think about what is next as you get older and you just want to keep playing and enjoy football more. When you sit down as a group of players you chat about what you will do next but not many footballers know. You just fall into things in football and it snowballs from there.
“You just try and live for today and try and enjoy it. As you get older you appreciate the situations you’re in, like now being away with Scotland and playing against some of the best players in the world.”
Naismith just didn’t have enough experience of playing against the elite in his latter days at Goodison Park. His hat-trick against Chelsea as a substitute in September made it seem from afar that the player retained the confidence of Roberto Martinez and returned that by making regular contributions. Yet, his appearances were all too limited under the Spaniard, who was sacked at the end of the season. A parting that Naismith maintains didn’t cause him to wonder if he should have waited before electing to go his separate ways with Everton.
“I don’t regret my decision despite the manager leaving Everton because a new manager could have come in and not liked me and I could have been 30 trying to find a new club rather than 29. With the way the squad was I think any manager would have favoured youngsters with massive potential. I hardly featured in the final ten games of the previous season so the situation had gone on for about ten months. I wanted to go in the summer but the manager wanted to keep me and by January it was too long.
“I didn’t start for Everton at the start of the season. I was coming on as a sub. I did well in the Chelsea game and played a few games but was out of the team again. I’ve never looked back and regretted any move in my career and I still don’t.
“It’s the first time I’ve really had to think ‘I’m getting to 30 and want to be playing’. I could have easily sat at Everton for the next three-and-a-half years and not been part of things. It was as much about playing and what has happened at the end of the season has now happened and I’ll do all I can to help Norwich get back to the Premier League.
“I didn’t really get an explanation for being out of the Everton team but when a manager has got a young squad and guys who have got massive potential then they want to give them as much opportunities as they can. As one of the older players your chances become more limited. But all the way through my career I’ve had to fight to make a mark in a team and I’ve managed that at most places I’ve been.” Making a mark now at Norwich will be a more prosaic pursuit.