He turned down better deals elsewhere to join Everton and Jelavic rates him highly. This could yet prove one of David Moyes' best pieces of business...
Even if Everton boss David Moyes was unaware of the availability of his fellow countryman Steven Naismith of Rangers before this week, there is no doubt that The Blues boss has been vigorously apprised of the situation by two of Steven Naismith’s biggest fans, Evertonians and former Rangers’ team-mates David Weir and Nikica Jelavic, over the last few days.
Naismith is that rare thing in British football currently – a home-grown example of the kind of confident, astute and dynamic forwards that excel in all the major European leagues. And having been immersed in the unfolding action at the Euros this summer in the role of a media summariser, it will not have been lost on the Glaswegian Moyes that the top teams at the tournament are chockfull of front six players boasting similar characteristics to his countryman – being selfless, fit, hard-running team players capable of filling in within a number of potential tactical solutions.
There is no doubt too, that in these cash-strapped times Steven Naismith could potentially tick a lot of boxes at Goodison on the cheap. Not only would he provide a known-quantity foil for the popular Jelavic but he could also, by force of will, reinvigorate an Everton side that always seems to be teetering on the brink of turning stale, just as he has done at Rangers for two seasons.
It is believed that Croatian striker Jelavic – who describes Naismith as the best attacking partner he has had in his career to date – has implored his boss to bring the Scot to Goodison to renew a partnership that yielded 56 goals in less than a season and a half, and a third successive SPL title for Rangers in 2011. Jelavic’s accolade for Naismith is compelling not least because of the eye-catching form of his Croatian strike partner Mario Mandžukić at Euro 2012, a target Everton appear to have lost out on. Certainly, it is high praise from Jelavic indeed.
Naismith’s former skipper at Ibrox, the notorious perfectionist David Weir, is another notable admirer, citing the player’s will to win and commitment to self-improvement as key qualities. He says Naismith would typically be found at Murray Park putting in the lonely hours in the gym long after his teammates had left for home.
It would be a cliché to suggest that Rangers’ Steven Naismith has waited five years at Ibrox to become an overnight sensation but there is certainly some truth in the statement.
Even at his first club Kilmarnock as a young teenager, he was generally eclipsed by rival players now largely forgotten but even there any deficit of natural ability was mitigated by a drive to succeed and improve that has allowed him to have the last laugh as he has moved through the ranks to enjoy a starring role for club and country.
The Ayrshire-man is a canny personality by reputation and, by his own admission, the 25-year-old has taken time to size up and exceed the obstacles that each stage in his career has placed before him – including two serious cruciate injuries, the latest of which saw him miss three quarters of his final season at Ibrox.
Nonetheless, even a cursory glance online at the furore that greeted ‘Naisy’s’ decision not to transfer his contract to the new Rangers’ entity Sevco on Sunday, that was taken in tandem with his equally versatile teammate Steven Whittaker, shows both the depth of feeling that his departure has aroused and also the extent to which he’d latterly become the main man in absentia for Rangers. As the one player capable of shouldering the on-field hopes of supporters as the club careered from one crisis to another en route to liquidation, his decision to quit has hit Rangers’ fans hard.
It would certainly be wrong to assume that Naismith, who scored 28 goals for the Ibrox club after joining from Kilmarnock in 2007, having originally been a Rangers trainee, is just another mercenary with an opportunist’s eye on the main chance of a Premiership payday.
With both Naismith and his teammate Whittaker displaying genuine emotion as they announced their decision to enact their legal prerogative in the wake of Rangers’ liquidation, the striker said: “I have discussed this decision with my fiancée, my family and my advisors. It has been an extremely difficult decision to make but I believe it is the right decision.”
“As players we were put in a difficult position by the administrators whereby we were asked to take a 75% pay cut to contracts that we entered into in good faith.
“As players we collectively saw this as the only way to get Rangers Football Club out of administration by way of a CVA and thereby protect the staff jobs and the history of the club and give the creditors who had also entered into contracts with Rangers in good faith the best chance of being paid.
“Both Steven and I and our agent fought hard with administrators during negotiations to insert clauses that offered protection to staff and players at the club. I am extremely proud of the actions we took but I am disappointed and angry that Rangers Football Club no longer exists in its original form.”
Despite the players’ palpable sense of betrayal, inevitably, Naismith’s words have rung hollow with a section of the support that idolised him until recently but the consensus appears to be that amongst fair-minded Rangers’ fans, and Scottish fans in general, that Naismith does not have a case to answer in terms of either his service for Rangers or his reasons for leaving.
Back in pre-bust 2007 though, it would have been hard to imagine the trajectory subsequently taken either by club or player in the last five years.
With his signing at Ibrox overshadowed by the arrival of the likes of Jean Claude Darcheville, Carlos Cuellar, Daniel Cousin and DaMarcus Beasley, Naismith’s rise has been anything but stellar, but rather gently upward, befitting a player whose achievements are supported by a steely character and a winning work ethic.
Any club now taking advantage of Rangers’ troubles to pick up the player will inherit an asset whose mental attributes and tactical intelligence make him a selfless and flexible, dynamic forward. Steven Naismith is a player that can fill in within any of the forward positions, whether wide, behind a striker or alongside Jelavic, especially so if Everton are chasing a goal or playing inferior opponents, say for example in a cup tie.
From Everton’s point of view Naismith is an obvious replacement for Tim Cahill, a player who appears to be rapidly nearing the end at Goodison. It is certainly a move that both parties appear to be taking very seriously, according to sources.
Nonetheless, it has taken the fulsome endorsement of his national manager Craig Levein and a hatrick of crucial goals for Scotland and Rangers to convert a local footballing public who had been largely immune to Naismith’s specific qualities prior to last season.
When Scotland boss Craig Levein described the versatile Ayrshireman as ‘the most improved player in Scotland, if not in the UK’, in September 2011 he was merely confirming a dawning realisation for many Scottish football fans.
The versatile attacker – he is neither a conventional striker nor midfielder – donning Rangers’ No. 14 shirt, is probably best described as having been respected rather than admired until recent times.
However, a series of assured performances and a hat-trick of important goals versus Spain and Liechtenstein for Scotland and an emphatic, arched half volley, that opened the scoring in last season’s first Old Firm derby for Rangers, saw the player emerge from the shadows cast by more illustrious teammates for the first time. And his stock has been re-assessed accordingly.
Former Aston Villa and Scotland manager Alex McLeish, who gave Naismith his international debut in 2007, was credited with an interest in taking Naismith to Villa Park as early as last December. But any potential transfer was scuppered by an injury sustained at Aberdeen’s Pittodrie in October that ended Naismith’s season – and effectively heralded the beginning of the end for Rangers’ hopes of retaining the SPL title.
With Naismith’s rehabilitation complete, (according to the player) his latest suitors Everton are sure to face steep competition for the signature of a player who scored nine times in 16 appearances for Rangers’ last season.
West Brom have also been credited with an interest in taking Naismith to the Midlands, however given the fact that no fee is likely to be involved for a player previously valued at over £6m it would be no surprise if a host of clubs were looking to gamble on the striker for whom his injury record is the only potential question mark.
Arsenal took a week-long look at Naismith on trial back in 2006, while he was still a Kilmarnock player, and, given the progress he has made since then, it would not be inconceivable that their scout Alex Stafford will have again run the rule over the striker when he watched Rangers play Hearts, Hibernian and Motherwell in January 2012, as Arsenal were linked to interests in defender Majid Bougherra and Gers’ keeper Allan McGregor in the press.
In terms of pure ability the Scot may not be an obvious fit for an Arsenal regime with a seeming aversion to utilising British players from outside their own academy system. However, Naismith’s determination, tactical discipline and ability to convince by stealth are qualities that Arsene Wenger’s underachievers could certainly benefit from.
Naismith began his career with Kilmarnock in 2004. He spent four years with the Ayrshire side and during that time he won the SFWA Young Player of the Year in 2006 and the SPFA Young Player of the Year award the following season despite being largely overshadowed by his friend and team-mate Kris Boyd. The player famously scored with his first touch of the ball at international level, as a 19-year-old for Scotland Under-21s against Iceland in March 2006.
Nonetheless, Boyd beat Naismith to Ibrox by a year as he joined Rangers in the summer of 2007 for a fee of £1.9m. While with Rangers, Naismith won three consecutive league titles, the Scottish Cup in 2008 and the League Cup twice, in 2010 and 2011.
But that roll of honour barely tells the tale for Naismith.
As Scotland U21 boss Billy Stark testifies, Naismith showed determination to come back from a cruciate ligament injury sustained against St Johnstone in April 2008, but when he returned to training eight months later the landscape was much changed with his club facing financial meltdown and his career very much at a crossroads. Others such as Boyd, Miller, Novo and Lafferty were also now all potentially ahead of him in the Ibrox pecking order and the future was very much uncertain. Slowly but surely though, Naismith saw each of them off in turn.
Billy Stark says: “I had Naismith in my first under 21 squad [a game against Finland at Pittodrie where the striker scored the opening goal in a 2-1 win] and what impressed me as much as his ability was his strength of character, his determination to better himself and succeed. He is a real tough piece of stuff.”
Paradoxically although Rangers’ travails have been an unexpected personal boom for Naismith with Rangers descent into turmoil providing the player – a self-confessed ‘lifelong Rangers’ fan’- with both the cause and the platform that has seen his talent flourish.
Provided he has fully recovered from his latest injury there is every reason to believe that Naismith can resume his career exactly where he left off. For a cash-strapped side like The Toffees that are short on potential heroes it seems well worth the cost of a wage and a signing on fee to find out.
Other great articles about Everton
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook