When Heart of Midlothian parted company with Robbie Neilson in April chief executive Andrew McKinlay spoke of the new manager having a "proven track record".

The team were in the midst of throwing away back-to-back third place finishes for the first time since 2004. "Aberdeen didn’t beat us to third place," sporting director Joe Savage told Hearts Standard. "We threw it away. Everybody knows that, it is the responsibility of us as a staff, that shouldn’t have happened."

With six defeats in seven prior to Neilson's exit, a seven-point lead over Livingston had, ahead of the Edinburgh derby at Easter Road, become five points behind Aberdeen. 

“I want a manager who wins games," McKinlay said in April. "We do want youth coming through, we want to play nice football. But I also want a manager who has a proven track record as a winner.”

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Steven Naismith, assisted by Gordon Forrest and Frankie McAvoy, was tasked with holding the fort and trying to overturn the deficit to Aberdeen in the final seven fixtures. While Hearts fell three points short, Naismith impressed in the process, garnering support from within the fan base for continuing as the permanent head coach, albeit far from unanimous.

Behind the scenes he had also caught the eye. Still, Hearts cast the net far and wide for candidates to be considered for the managerial role. As ever, there were plenty of eye-catching names linked or interested, some of whom were outwith the club's financial reach. But when it came down to the final stages, including talks with Hammarby coach Marti Cifuentes, it was Naismith who emerged as the standout candidate. Someone the club could see implementing an identity, both in style on the pitch and offering a pathway for youth to the first-team.

"I remember Andrew saying that and we were all on board with that, we understood exactly what was expected of us as a club to try to find the right type of manager," Savage siad. "I think Steven massively impressed everyone in the process. He did a presentation to the board which was excellent.

"From there I think it is clear for me the style of the team, the way we played, the way we performed in those final seven games was excellent. We took the game to a lot of teams. We did look at other candidates, we did look at some people who could be an interesting profile for us as a club but Steven earned the right, Steven deserved the opportunity. Going to that last game of the season against Hibs, that fight, that desire, that hunger not to get beat. We were down to 10 men, we had to defend, we had to stay in a low block and we defended brilliantly. At that point I think everyone thought ‘Steven deserves this opportunity, deserves a chance to showcase the ability he has shown and the prowess of his coaching and he will get better and better’.

"He’s at the beginning of his journey. As much as you want to develop players you should be wanting to develop your own staff and make them the best they can be. Steven has had a great grounding with [Scotland boss] Steve Clarke and has worked under some great coaches previously. We thought he fit the profile of what we ended up looking for. You talk about proven track records, Steven has got a proven track record as a player and ended up going on to have a great career. He’s got some great ideas, understanding how he wants to play. It will take him time to really establish that style but we believe as a board we can be a force to be reckoned with."

The club are aware the nature of the coaching set-up when McAvoy was initially installed as head coach due to coaching qualifications hasn't helped. The optics were far from great. But it goes back to the belief they have in Naismith to take the club forward.

Savage recognises the team haven't played as well as they did during his interim spell, noting "mitigating circumstances" as the style of play and system is tweaked and worked on, the number of injuries and games at the start of the campaign. 

"The best way of putting it, Steven deserved the opportunity and earned the right," he said. "He gave us something to think about. When I’ve watched his coaching, watched his team meetings, watched his interactions with staff and players, he understands the club, he gets the fan base, he knows that you need to win. Both of us have come under pressure. It gives you that motivation when people are doubting you to say ‘okay, we will show you then. If you are doubting us, don’t believe us, think we are going to fail, want us to fail’. That gives us the fire in the belly to go and prove a few people wrong. 

"People have been saying it is a disaster and we should be sacking him and sacking me probably. We’re fourth in the league after eight games. It is not a catastrophe."

Despite not reaching the heights expected so far, Savage expressed his excitement that "if it clicks we are going to be a dangerous side". If it does, Hearts will be in prime position to qualify for Europe for the third season in a row. Doing so would be the first time such a feat has been achieved in the club's history.

For context Hibs have done so twice in their history, if you consider the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, the precursor to the UEFA Cup and Aberdeen have done it three times, including runs of eight and 14 years. Dundee United? Twice, including a run of 14 years. St Johnstone? Once. It hammers home the fact Hearts have, for the majority of the club's existence, underperformed. Europe should not be considered the bare minimum. Especially as the ambition remains getting closer to the Old Firm. 

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"We are here to rectify that," Savage said. "That’s the aim. To make history is brilliant. This season, try to win the league. Probably impossible now with how far Celtic are ahead already. After that, try to finish second. What are we, four points behind Rangers? Celtic and Rangers in our next two games. These are the things we should be targeting.

"I know I’ll get slaughtered for it. I know Rangers and Celtic fans will come onto me again, ’here’s this deluded idiot saying his stuff again’. I get it but I’ll never change my thoughts that we should be aiming to be the best we can be. And to think outwith trying to finish third all the time. It should be to try to get closer.

"I don’t set out to think ‘finishing third is brilliant this year’. Why would you ever set out to do that? When you go to Wimbledon do you think everybody there goes ‘I just want to make the quarter-final’. Everyone’s aim is to try to win it. Within that there are levels, clearly. Players are much better than other players. Sometimes that person can come through from nowhere. We are that club that thinks why can’t we try to get second place, why can’t we try to get closer to the Old Firm? I’d like to think Aberdeen and Hibs think the same."

Supporters would be well within their right to suggest that to give the club the best chance of doing so would have been the appointment of an experienced manager with a "proven track record" instead of the promotion of the club's B team manager. At the same time, Hearts have performed well against the Old Firm in both of Naismith's matches in charge and it is hoped his experience of being on that side, in that environment as a Rangers player can help.

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"How do you get experience if somebody doesn’t give you an opportunity?" Savage queried. "Pep Guardiola is the best manager in the world, probably going to be the best ever. He managed Barcelona B team for one season. Not comparing Steven to Pep Guardiola, but I am saying these guys have to start somewhere. Someone has to see something in them and give them a chance to showcase.

"I think with Steven and the experience of coaching, when you sit down with someone and look them in the eye and you understand what they are trying to do and trying to achieve. You either believe them or you don’t. You either think that will work or it doesn’t work. I like to think I am quite clued up on football and tactics and formations and how things operate. I looked at him and thought ‘yeah, you have got some good ideas, I’ll try and help you become what you think you can become and what I think you can become and what this club can become’. And that’s what we’re trying to do, be the best we can be.

"There are so many people that have walked into a job that is maybe not for them and they have been sacked quite quickly or they’ve not found their feet. The one thing I would say about Steven Naismith in the time I have worked with him, he is a really, really fast learner. You can tell straight away he picks up things really quickly and if he makes a mistake he won’t make it again. If he makes a decision in a game where he makes a change or makes a formation change he will own up to it and say ‘I won’t make that again’. That’s the best way coaches can learn.

"You can argue it's maybe too big a club to be learning on the job, I don’t disagree but I think with the support around Steven we can help him achieve and we can make sure he can become the best manager he can become.

"You need to give people a chance."