If a week is a long time in football, then seven months is an eternity. And Heart of Midlothian supporters can certainly attest to that.

The men in maroon travel to Ayrshire this afternoon knowing that a win will wrap up third place and secure group-stage European football next season. Even a draw or a defeat would only delay the inevitable and it is now a matter of when, not if, fans can start digging out their passports in preparation for a jolly around the continent next term.

The contrast in the mood music around Tynecastle between now and Hearts’ first visit to Rugby Park this season could hardly be more stark. Back then, things weren’t going well for the Gorgie club and a sluggish start to the campaign left some supporters questioning whether or not Naismith was the right man to take the team forward. A banner in the away end, aimed at the Hearts board, was pointed in its message: “Funded by fans, ran by clowns. We deserve better.”

Fast-forward to the present, though, and better is exactly what they have got. Hearts have cantered to third, reached two semi-finals, and breaching the 70-point barrier is a perfectly achievable goal. It has, Naismith notes, been quite the turnaround.

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“It is a contrast,” he concurred. “It’s football. I think at that time it was unnecessary and harsh on the club and the board. As much as I wasn’t getting it, there was pressure there and you could tell. But there was a calmness internally.

“What I was saying to the players, the board – everyone trusted and believed in it. There were signs of it – maybe not blossoming like flowers in the summer – but there were shoots. And over time we have continued to build and build and build. For me, there’s still loads to go.

“If you look back at this season and reflect on it, this is the first season this squad has been together. Our starting team throughout the season is the second-youngest in the league, we reached two semi-finals, and we have the points tally that we have at the moment. It’s been a really good season.

“There was a lot of unrest at the start, then there was adversity that we had to deal with and be stronger. It’s good. We have been knocked out of two semi-finals and we are disappointed – but if we were four years down the line and had a squad that had been together for a long period, and expectation is really high, then you might say it has been a failure. But for our first year, getting to these points and being where we are, it has been a really good season – with hopefully European group-stage football to come.”

A clean sheet this afternoon would go a long way to helping Hearts book their place in next season’s Europa League play-off round, but the matter of who should start between the sticks has generated plenty of debate among supporters. On the one hand you have Zander Clark, who has recorded the second-most clean sheets of any Premiership goalie this season and is enjoying a fine campaign. On the other you have Craig Gordon, a club legend fresh from a lengthy lay-off and no doubt keen to rack up as many minutes as possible before he has to call time on his illustrious career.

Since Gordon’s return to fitness, the 41-year-old has been used primarily in the Scottish Cup while Clark has had the gloves for league fixtures. The only exception was Hearts’ final pre-split fixture, a 4-2 home win over Livingston, where Gordon was given the nod so that he was fully up to speed for last weekend’s Scottish Cup semi-final – but Naismith says that Clark will return to the starting line-up for today’s game.

“Zander will play because it’s an important game and we go back to the way we have worked all season,” Naismith explained.

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“First of all, the way it has played out, Craigy had to show he was back. There was never going to be a case where I played Craig unless I felt he was back, and I’ve worked with him and played with him enough to know when that moment came. The cup tied in with that but ultimately it’s competition for places.

“Unfortunately only one goalie plays. It’s like every player, if you’re not on it you’ll not play and that’s the way it has been. And both of them have been professional enough about it. They’ve been happy enough. Both of them will say they want to play every game. But they’ve had to understand we have a good group, we have good competition for places, so it’s play well, train well and see what happens.”

With both players hoping to be a part of the Scotland squad for this summer’s European Championships, Naismith expects the competition between the two for a place in the starting line-up to only intensify in the final five games of the season.

“I think so,” Naismith added. “Both of them will be desperate to play and try to do all they can to get in the team. But all I can be is honest with them and that’s what I have been.

“I am not going to sit and kid them both on that I’m going to keep everyone happy because it’s not going to happen. There has got to be a realisation that the situation is what it is.

“They’ve both given themselves a chance of being in the [Euros] squad. I think the fact they were both picked for the last squad shows the manager wants to understand where they both are and that they’re both in his plans. The brutal part of football is when squads are announced there are only so many who can go. There’s losers as well as winners.”