5 Minutes with...
One of the most universally well liked players to ever wear the royal blue jersey and widely recognised as the 'kindest man in football'.
I was delighted to be able to speak with Steven Naismith this week about his time at Everton and his love for the club.
You will be hard pushed to find anybody with a bad word to say about Steven Naismith.
That, in itself, is quite the achievement for a man who has played professional football in cities with the staunch football tribalism of Liverpool and Glasgow. Two cities that live and breathe football, Steven has played, and scored in, both a Merseyside and Glasgow derby. The two cities share many similarities, both have held the title of European Capital of Culture, Glasgow in 1990 and Liverpool more recently in 2008. Both cities have a powerful sense of their own cultural identity and a proud working class heritage. It is this sense of identity that Naismith has never lost, despite the fortune and lifestyle football has given him.
The son of a social worker, as a child Naismith would often travel with his father to residential camps where he would see first-hand other children who were a lot worse off than himself, often struggling with difficult situations and living in tough environments. Those memories have never left him and have played a huge part in making Steven the man he is today; widely recognised as ‘the kindest man in football’.
His charity work, although well publicised, really cannot be understated. For many years, he has supported the homeless people of Glasgow, through the charity Loaves & Fishes; providing food, shelter and support to the city’s most vulnerable. He is also committed to helping the Whitechapel Centre in Liverpool, another homeless charity, for whom he has personally served up Christmas dinners at an annual event he sponsors. Earlier this year, he was also in the headlines, again for the right reasons; he lead the way as Hearts club captain by taking a 50% pay cut in order to help the Edinburgh club survive the current Coronavirus crisis and the impending relegation that loomed. He publicly went on record to commit himself to the club ‘regardless of which league the club is in.’
It is that type of attitude and genuine commitment that has endeared Naismith to Evertonians. His time at the club was not smooth sailing, he often found himself in and out of the side and dipping in and out of form and confidence. He was, however, a dedicated professional with the right attitude and a genuine desire to become a success at Goodison Park. Always dependable and with an infectious work rate, he most certainly never let himself or the club down any time he pulled on that royal blue jersey…
“Some of my best memories in Football are playing for Everton. From the very first moment I signed I felt that connection. When I look back now, I understand that Everton was the perfect fit for me; from the Chairman right down to the staff at the club, and the players that were around me. I understood what the values of the club were and that my own personal values completely aligned with them.”
Naismith would go on to play over 100 games for Everton; with fond memories of a Merseyside Derby goal against Liverpool and that famous ‘perfect hat trick’ against Chelsea, coming on as a substitute to score with his right foot, left foot and his head. Remarkably, he had also scored a hat trick on his Everton debut against AEK Athens, although that went on to overshadowed by the one and only goal to ever be scored by a certain Tony Hibbert. We all know what happened when that one went in!
“I have such great memories, individual memories that are so special like that hat trick against Chelsea, but most importantly to me I am lifelong friends with people who work in different departments around the club, which goes to show the togetherness that the club had built up over the years. Also, having the chance to play with so many great players in my time at the club was an amazing experience in itself for me.”
These teammates he speaks of, perhaps unknowingly, would play a small part in another act of community spirit that Naismith would engage in during his time at Everton. Ayrshire local amateur side Stewarton Athletic, would often receive the discarded match worn boots of the Everton squad, as he would collect them in and take them home with him when he travelled back up to his home town. In fact, the people of Stewarton could often be seen walking around town sporting various Everton training garments, as Naismith would often gather up training gear and pass it on to his Mum to dish out locally.
Naismith was signed by fellow scot David Moyes, but it was under the management of Roberto Martinez, who had long been an admirer of Naismith’s talents, that his Everton career really began to take off…
“For me, it was a combination of things that lead to the upturn in my performances at the club. My first season, I was coming back from a bad knee injury and scoring that hat trick in my first game (Hibbo’s testimonial) before half time, probably raised the expectation level on me much higher than how I performed.
Scoring in the derby against Liverpool bought me some time with the fans, but then the new manager coming in it gave me a chance to start over again really.”
I mentioned to Steven that I had recently spoken to his old teammate Nikica Jelavic, who told me how that particular managerial change had the opposite effect on his performances at the club and began to signal the end of his time at Goodison Park. I wondered what was different for Naismith?
“Personally, I loved everything about Roberto. I felt that I was learning something new every day under him and felt as if I had quickly gained his trust on the pitch, playing in certain positions that he wanted me to. We played a good style of football and that also suited me. In football, confidence plays such a big part and mine grew every week when I got a run of games.”
Steven is also an ambassador for Dyslexia Scotland, and has often spoke openly about his struggles with Dyslexia growing up. He has spoken of how his anxiousness often led to him thinking ahead of situations that could become a problem for him, and being one step ahead of himself with a solution to these problems. Impressively, but perhaps typically of Naismith and his determination to succeed, it is something he has learned to incorporate into his game, giving him an edge on the pitch by reacting to situations quicker than anybody else. It is also perhaps typical of his determination and attitude that he would inevitably go on to score against Everton on his return to Goodison Park for Norwich City, a goal which remarkably resulted in a generous round of applause from the Goodison faithful.
“Yes I remember that well, it was a very surreal thing to happen and after the game it really sunk in and showed me just how special a club Everton really is. The character I am, I will always have the mentality that I want to win at all costs. Over the years footballers will always have hard times for loads of different reasons but I have always felt that I was strong enough to always get through them and show my worth. I have always thought that I have a career that was a hobby really that turned in to a job.”
It is clear to me how Everton holds such a special place in Steven’s heart. As our conversation turns to the current Everton side and our hopes for the future, Steven tells me how impressed he was at the appointment of Carlo Ancelotti and the recent new signings made by the club…
“Carlo Ancelotti is a great appointment and the signings he has managed to attract have all started really well. His managerial record speaks for itself and I hope that he can bring some silverware to the club because if anyone deserves success it’s the Evertonians. The support I experienced in my time at the club was amazing. The size of the club the Toffees are, we need to be challenging for trophies and pushing into that group of teams fighting for the Champions League. I watch most Everton games and I do have real optimism for this season.”
34 years old now and still playing for Hearts, I wondered whether he would stay in the game after his playing days come to an end, or if he would use the time to focus more of his energy on his fantastic charity work?
“I find myself thinking more and more about what I will do when I retire. I love the game greatly and as I have got older, I have found a real satisfaction when a younger player takes on a bit of advice I have given and you see the rewards. That makes me think that I want to pass all of the experience I have on to other young players.
I really love watching the tactical battles managers have, trying to get the upper hand in games. I do want to become a manager.
Being involved in football in Britain brings such a lot of attention which is a great tool to use whenever you feel passionate about something and that is what I have tried to do with any charity I have ever been involved with. There are people out there that work tirelessly for so many great causes. I love getting involved and will always help in any way that I can.”
It is perhaps, the least surprising thing to hear that even within football, it is helping other people that Steven Naismith enjoys the most…
Thank you for your time Steven and good luck for the future - once a blue, always a blue!
Also, I would like to thank Peter McLean for his kind help in arranging for me to speak with Steven Naismith.