Steven Naismith had just mentioned the pressure that comes with being at Heart of Midlothian when, unprompted, he addressed a concern of the supporters.

A familiar, and fair, question posed since Naismith's full-time appointment has been: 'Why have the club entrusted the job of head coach to an inexperienced coach?'.

He gets it.

"I’ve never underestimated how big a job this is, a massive job," he told Hearts Standard in an exclusive interview. "I get the fans saying it is too big a job but internally, myself, I think it is a massive job but I am up for the fight. As a player I was the same. I was never the best prospect as a kid but as soon as I got that chance more times than not I took it. That’s what I believe now.

"It is not one where I go ‘this is too good to turn down, I’m going to take it and what happens happens’. I wouldn’t embarrass myself if I didn’t think I was ready."

We are sitting at the Oriam reflecting on his first eight months in charge of Hearts, going back to his interim spell, but also the path which led him to this point. It has been a quick ascension to the first-team post at Tynecastle. After being on the fringes of Robbie Neilson's coaching staff, Naismith got a grounding alongside John Rankin with the club's under-18s before moving up to take charge of the B team, while also being part of Steve Clarke's coaching team with Scotland. Amongst it all, there were talks with St Mirren after Jim Goodwin had left for Aberdeen.

During that journey there has been plenty of self-doubt, plenty of introspection and plenty of learning, a process which still takes place every single day on the training ground and every single match day. He took huge belief from conversations with both Roberto Martinez and Clarke when the St Mirren job came up and he wondered if he was ready or not. They both said: "You can coach for 20 years and you will still have that same thought when you go for a job".

READ MORE: Bravery on the ball and clever defensive tactics: How Hearts overcame Celtic

The path from retirement

Yet, before all of that there were questions. A lot of questions. Peppering and pestering Walter Smith, Martinez, Davie Moyes and others about management having been "switched on" to that pathway as a player. 

"Having dyslexia I look at the bigger picture a lot, I see the bigger picture so I want an understanding of it," Naismith explained. "So I want to understand from a manager ‘what do you do in the afternoon when you go home?’ Very quickly in my football career I understand that the staffing levels and what you need to work, are all the time as a coach. When you become a manager it is even more intense. I had that foundation and bit of knowledge of what it is. Nothing will prepare you for it.

"In the two years since I have retired and coached I have had an extremely quick movement from not doing much coaching as a player to coaching all the time to leading a group to then moving up a bit, getting into the national team when the dynamics totally change, not just as a coach of the level of player you are with but ‘how do I deal with this as a character because half my mates are in the Scotland team, I’m on the other side of the fence and I’m going to go against them?’ Dealing with all that was rapid and really intense but I’ve come out the other side of it and it’s a massive value and probably helped me.

"The path from when I retired to when I was interim here, if it hadn’t gone the way it did I wouldn’t have been ready I don’t think, I think it would have come far too quickly for me. By having a touch of being on the grass everyday, being with players that cannae do what I just take for granted when you are with the 18s and B teams ‘just do this’ or ‘why are you not standing here’ you need to coach all of that. To then going with the first team to the national team and how the game is totally different and it is small margins and it’s a game of chess, one wee movement can dictate so much.

"All that is what you learn. When you come into this role it is all bunched into one. Who you play, one weekend to the next, the tactics that are involved are totally different, being at a club with the pressure."

Coaching comfort zone

When starting out as a coach, the visibility of the path ahead was far from clear. It was certainly not what he had envisaged. Firstly, because he didn't want to coach kids. He explained that with his demands up "here", gesturing above his head, that "they are not going to enjoy working with me and I ain’t going to enjoy working with them".

But a realisation soon struck him as did a huge surprise.

"I took a couple of months to bed in and just find my feet, where am I going to fit in here, and very quickly realised I need to get on the grass coaching," he said. "With the first-team you are limited because you have got the manager and his two coaches so I was just around the fringes. I wasn’t comfortable with that, I didn’t want that. I knew how important it was to coach. I went and helped Ranks with the 18s. Very quickly I was like ‘I actually like this, this is brilliant’. I learned so much from it.

"Loads of players will fall into coaching because they won’t need to think about it and they just do it because ‘when I retire, what am I going to do?’ There was part of that. For me as a player I was thinking ‘where is my career going to go when I finish?’ You are not going to sit at home. When I retired I thought this is what I’m going to do because I genuinely believe this is what I want.

READ MORE: Steven Naismith outlines areas of Hearts display that impressed him in Celtic win

"You can’t be 100 per cent but then very quickly I was like ‘you have to do this for at least a year to get over that fear, what if one of these players gets injured how am I going to deal with this session?' You are doing it with 18-year-olds who are probably going ‘oh my god, that’s Steven Naismith who played with Hearts and was a Scotland international’. Whereas I’m going ‘shit, if this goes sideways, they are going to slaughter me!’ I guarantee you every coach will tell you the same, that’s what’s happening.

"I went home the first two months and told my Mrs: ‘I’m not sure this is for me’. But it is because you feel uncomfortable, you are out your comfort zone. When you get past that point and it becomes comfortable, that's when you know this is for me."

Being out his comfort zone extended to the Scotland national team where he was coaching mates who Naismith thinks gave him a bit of leeway because he was "pretty certain in a couple of the early sessions they’d have been like ‘he’s all over the place, this is international level’". Those experiences took him back to being at Rangers as a kid where felt like an "outcast", the only boy from Ayrshire in the dressing room where he would keep himself to himself. That helped shape him so that when anyone new joined a dressing room at Kilmarnock or beyond he would try to help anyway he could even if when he got onto the pitch he could be "firm".

Hard conversations and relationship dynamic

The standards and demands he set as a player, that firmness, remains with him as a coach, as well as a quality which he values as being the "biggest thing as a coach".

"I try to be as honest," he said. "I have hard conversations every week but if you are honest they will respect you. Your dynamic and your friendships definitely change. If I don’t play somebody they will slaughter me or if we get beat ‘what’s he doing that for?’ That's inevitably going to happen. I’ve taken myself away from it but I have a relationship with the players, especially at Hearts who I was team-mates with.

"With the decisions that can be made from the players the players will make them. For example, we need to work on Christmas Day. That’s not changing. But I have and know everyone else has young families. As a group of players, when do you want [training] to be. Do you want to be in first thing, do you want to be in at lunchtime, do you want to be in later, your call. These kinds of things I’ll put to the players, put to the guys that I know and I have a relationship with because they are professional, I have a good relationship with and know they will make the right choice. It has been a change but knew it had to happen.

"There will be things I’ve put in place that do not change, it is happening. Players have grown to understand that we are not even going to test the water but then the game has changed now where you need to educate the players. You need to give them an understanding and allow them to go ‘what about this, this and this?’"

READ MORE: 'Project' manager, must-win noise and 9-game sprint: Naismith deserves Hearts time

Naismith understands the "world has moved on". He won't stop players being on their phones in the dressing room before and after matches. But, he insists, "there is a clear understanding of what is good and what is not", notably when a session is going on. 

"Somebody can have a bad day in training, their touch could be off, their shooting could be rubbish, their defending could be rubbish," he said. "But that doesn't stop them running about. It doesn’t stop them working hard, it doesn’t stop them being energetic. If they aren't I will clearly question them in front of everyone, ‘you are ruining it for everybody else’. You can’t ruin it for everybody else, if you are going to do that then you will leave the group. That’s simply how it works. It’s the clearest way, the best way of making it consistent. There’s a bit of accountability.

"I’ve been in places where people who aren’t playing mope about and ruin the session. It’s pointless having the session and time on the pitch is valuable. Being honest, being clear, that’s the best way."

Fear of failure drive

Since the summer's appointment, first as technical coach as the club had to work to UEFA's remits over pro licence, Naismith's tenure has been punctuated by criticism, both in the media and from the club's supporters. Having played for Rangers and in the Premier League it is not something which penetrates him. He admitted that in some games, notably in losses to Dundee and Motherwell, the team have been too safe (more on that in an article on Friday). But he is also of the view that the team have made good progress in certain areas all the while a managerial change has taken place.

"Two things drove me as a player," he said. "The fear of not being good enough, internally, and the fact I’ve got no other skill so I need to make enough money that when I retire I don’t need to work. Those were the two driving factors as a player. I definitely think the fear of failure is what drives me. Sometimes I’ll sit and go ‘why am I doing this?’ You have that moment of why do you put yourself through this, you don’t need it. I could be on the other side of the fence, battering everybody else when they have watched the game once. You read their comments and for me it doesn’t bear any weight on me at all.

READ MORE: How Steven Naismith landed Hearts job - presentation, experience, style

"I’m that type of person that I have an inner belief of what I am doing. If it is right and I believe in it, I’ll trust it. What people want you to do is snipe back because that will generate more for them but if we have a successful season I’ll be delighted, I’ll show it with the group. We are halfway there.

"We are actually in a decent position. I don’t think people have put enough emphasis on there has been a change of manager. There has been a change of style to a point. The main things I want from players day-to-day and in games is different to the previous manager. What I regard as really high priority wise is different. So to have all that change and to be where we are, yeah some of the results haven’t been great and some of the performances, but it has been a four month, five month period. I think we are sitting in an alright position, loads of work to go but we’re sitting third.

"I know there has been a gripe at the club about competing with the Old Firm, I agree. We need to compete with them in every game. All the Old Firm games I’ve had, Celtic at home and Rangers in the semi-final have been the disappointing ones. Celtic at home last season was a brilliant first 45 minutes, red card impacts the game, draw with Rangers, beat Celtic at Celtic Park, 1-0 up in 90 minutes at Ibrox. If somebody isn’t telling me that’s a bit of progress, that to me is change.

"Away results, set plays and if you like defending were massive issues in the summer. In every aspect of them there is progress. Again, results and performances have been up and down but I firmly believe over a period of time we will get a bit of consistency but these aspects are brilliant.

"I know there is a lot of work to do. Internally, I know when we have been good. There are moments when I have been pleased and it’s not just on the result but maybe how I have seen a couple of performances of players individually, maybe what I’ve seen on the pitch, it’s a stat like the set plays where I think ‘brilliant, we are getting there’ but I’ll enjoy it at the end of the season if we are successful."

READ MORE: Why Steven Naismith's former team-mate believes he will be a successful Hearts boss


Through it all, Naismith is "constantly learning" as the game moves. When asked about moments and instances from the season so far as being key learnings, he brings up an example of a game.

"Rangers at Ibrox," he noted. "We slightly change shape at half-time. I still think we should have won no matter what happened. Looking back on it, could I have stuck to how we played in the first half? The things you then need to think about are fatigue, player substitutions, these dynamics that interfere with that starting XI, the reason you have gone with that starting XI is that it was the best one.

"The first half at Rangers was really good but when we maybe need to tweak that what are you left with? Should I have kept the same structure? Potentially, that could have helped us.

"You learn from that. Again at the weekend [Jorge] Grant is injured, Natty [Atkinson] is getting injured, do we just put more bodies at the back and defend it? We are constantly learning wee details every week and even how you are dealing with players. When you need to criticise somebody or boost someone back up."

Coaching with dyslexia

As he mentioned, the big picture shapes Naismith's management with regards to his dyslexia. Author Fernette Eide said that "dyslexic brains are organized in a way that maximizes strength in making big picture connections at the expense of weaknesses in processing fine details". The Hearts boss tries to use that in his management.

"Spell Checker for my meetings," he joked when asked how dyslexia has impacted his management. "The analyst double checks everything because I might get their right but it might not be the right there! Daft stuff like that.

"I’ve always seen it as a positive. I try to give the players a picture of how the game is going to go. Best manager ever at it, Walter Smith. He could tell you before the game ‘this will happen, this will happen then this will happen’. You were blown away. You’d go home thinking ‘how did he know that?!’ I try to do that. I get a buzz when it plays out like that. I think a part of that is the way my brain is, dyslexia helps, the creativity side, the seeing things happen."

This is the first part of our exclusive chat with Steven Naismith, expect more content on tactics, recruitment and promoting youngsters into the first-team in the coming days and weeks.