B eing out of the Scotland team “took its toll” on Steven Naismith, he confessed, as he reflected on ending 18 months without a cap by coming off the bench in the 4-0 friendly thrashing by Belgium at Hampden on Friday. The patriotic Hearts attacker would never describe being part of the current national set-up as a chore. Never mind that Alex McLeish and his selections are convincing no-one in these borders that they are building towards ending a two-decade exile from major finals.
Perceptions must begin to be altered when Albania provide the opposition for Scotland’s Nations League opener at Hampden tomorrow. Punters will tolerate nothing less. Naismith refuses to accept that Scotland might now go into the encounter on a downer following their Belgian bashing.
“Definitely not,” he said. “When I came into this squad the biggest thing I noticed is that the tempo of training is up and that’s clearly down to an eagerness from the young guys and newer guys in the squad to make an impression on the manager.
“The bodies will recover as normal. Obviously, you give up a lot of possession to a team like that. We expected that. Mentally, it’s a lesson. Look at how few caps were in the squad. It is one of those where it’s ‘Wow – that’s the top level’ and it won’t be as if we’re that sombre that we were punished all the time but, in terms of the bigger picture, that’s the level that the boys have to get up to quickly.
“This is a new squad that’s got together and has only really had a week to work in terms of what we want to do. The Belgians have had a full campaign. They went to the World Cup and arguably had two campaigns to get it right. That’s why they’re the benchmark. It was a punishing night but one I’m sure we’ll learn from.”
Naismith, 31, has learned much about international football from a 46-cap career that spans 12 years. He knows that the visit of Albania will require Scotland to use and not lose their heads in the desperation to give them something to cling to in a Nations League campaign that offers a bonus opportunity to qualify for the multi-venue 2020 Euros that will include games at Hampden.
“International football in general is more of a chess game than club football,” he said. “It’s about waiting until the moment is right so there’s definitely going to be a bit of patience there. I don’t think you can underestimate them. If you look back at the competitive games over their last two campaigns, they’ve been a good team. A lot of their players play in Italy and are comfortable on the ball, so again it’s like a chess match. When they’ve got it, we need to be solid but when we’ve got it we need to take care of the ball and make the tempo happen to our level rather than their level.
“It’s got to be the aim [to win our Nations League section]. I wouldn’t say it’s a definite must but we’re looking at it confidently. There’s a very good selection in there of young guys who don’t have any fear. It’s more about them wanting to put their stamp on the international team than worrying about being in the starting line-up – and that’s a good thing.”
Naismith will never grumble about being part of any Scotland set-up when it seemed over the past year he might struggle to earn such an opportunity again.
“To be honest, the last few days since I met up have been fantastic,” the player said. “During the summer and in the last campaign, when I wasn’t really involved, I did take it sore, but coming back in, it started from club level and the manager spoke to me and said he did see me becoming involved. I’ve just got to work hard and since I’ve been here I’ve loved every minute of it.”