All being well, Steven Naismith will be sitting this Christmas toasting a year where he has entered Scotland’s Roll of Honour. With a 48th appearance for his country likely to come tonight in Israel, he needs to play in only two of three remaining games in 2018 to reach what once seemed an unlikely target of 50 caps.
“I maybe gave up hope of getting that at some point,” he admitted yesterday. “I am not banking on it yet. I am just taking them as they come. It would be a dream come true if I could hit that mark.”
If anything his persistence is a lesson for Leigh Griffiths, the striker who the on-loan Hearts player appears to have usurped for the time being. Griffiths is on only 19 caps and whether he wins many more has been called into question by his decision to pull out of the latest squad to focus on his fitness.
Naismith is sure Griffiths will be back contesting for a frontline place before long. While Alex McLeish put the cat among the pigeons by declaring Naismith was the No 1 strike following last month’s win over Albania, the player himself doesn’t answer to this title. Despite having 10 goals already to his name this season for club and country, Naismith doesn’t even consider himself to be a striker. He certainly exhibits little of the self-regard associated with the position.
“Maybe, if you are a goalscorer, you have seen it in the past at clubs when you have had two scorers saying: ‘I’m the man, I’m the man,’” he said.
“I just don’t see that with us at all. I don’t class myself as a striker-striker anyway.
“In terms of playing up front what helped me is playing as a striker in my younger days but, as I got to professional and first-team level, I think managers recognised that I could play in a few positions.”
He cites Kenny Miller as an inspiration. “Kenny is a team player and, for me, he didn’t get the credit internationally for the job he did for Scotland,” he said. “He would work tirelessly and not score. Somebody else would get the headlines and it would be all about them.”
The back pages at the start of this week were dominated by Griffiths’ decision to pull out. Naismith does not see this being the result of a spat. He certainly feels no guilt at his part in Griffiths’ dissatisfaction with his lot.
“I might play or not but it’s not because of anybody else,” he said. “If I am playing well enough then I’ll be in the team. If I’m not, then I won’t be in it.”
Naismith doesn’t believe Griffths is one to spit the dummy out. He’s been too loyal in the past for that. As Naismith knows only too well, strikers go in and out of favour.
“If anything Griff is too honest for his own good sometimes,” he said. “He is a forward who wants to play. His comments about ‘kick in the teeth’ and all that, I can understand what he is saying.
“He is not saying ‘I am not going to try from now on’. He is saying it’s a blow. Every week at every club players take a blow. It is how you react to it. He has worked hard and scored a few goals for Celtic. But, if he has come to this conclusion about this trip, then that’s fair enough.
“In a year’s time, we might be sitting here thinking we are close to going to the Euros and Griff’s a big part of that. Why would you not want to be a part of it?”
This is the thoughtful analysis one would expect from Naismith. There are few footballers whose off-field persona differs so markedly to their on-field one. He has cultivated a sharp edge to his game over the years.
This will-to-win, what some might call a nastiness that creeps in from time to time, is one reason why he’s endured so long. It’s helped reinstate him to a position where he’s within touching distance of becoming the 32nd player – a figure matching his age – to reach 50 caps for Scotland. He can also reflect on having made a name for himself in the English Premier League. Naismith remains, officially at least, a Norwich City player.
“I would sit here quite comfortably and say I have maximised my career,” he says. “In terms of my ability, everything I have, I have maximised it. That is down to attitude and mentality 100 per cent.”
He was taught a lot from watching – and sometimes recoiling from – Barry Ferguson’s behaviour in training at Rangers.
“You would be in training and he is bawling his head off because you missed a chance but it’s because he wanted to win,” he recalled. “And I learned so much from that first year at Rangers about a winning mentality – the best who go the furthest are the ones who want to win the most.”
It’s evidenced in less edifying moments such as when Naismith was bent double over Celtic’s Jonny Hayes while haranguing his prone opponent following a mistimed challenge in a game in August. He seems slightly embarrassed now but insists he won’t ever change. “I myself thought it was not malicious,” said Naismith. “It was petulant. And it was silly. But I would not take it out of my game because it has got me this far.”