Hearts v Rangers: Steven Gerrard looking forward to re-igniting rivalry with former Merseyside foe Steven Naismith
Across his 21 months in charge, the Ibrox manager has never faced the Gorgie club in Edinburgh with Naismith narking and niggling his way through for the hosts as the 33-year-old will this afternoon.
The pair have past form when it comes to crossing swords on the pitch, though. They did so in the Merseyside derby, and the former Liverpool captain sees in one-time Evertonian Naismith the very edge and aggression he too sought to bring to the pitch. As was Gerrard himself, he also sees in the man now officially leader of the Hearts team – handed the armband this month by Daniel Stendel following the sidelining of Christophe Berra, inset – a player who can be a transformative presence.
“We’ve had a few run-ins on the pitch; a fiery character, busy player on the football pitch, always looking for the action in the final third to create and score,” he said. “He has lots of experience. Every time we’ve come up against him, as a player or as a coach, he’s certainly someone you have to make the players aware of because he’s a clever footballer.”
And a pest, it was put to the Rangers manager. “I’d like to use the word busy. In a good way. But that’s in his make-up, to constantly put pressure on the opposition and he’s relentless in that area. Even at the age he is, he still plays that way now. Obviously, he’s had a few injuries of late, but he doesn’t change the way he plays; he’s right up for it. I’m sure he’ll be the same on Sunday, especially now he is the captain of the team.”
Gerrard has had a chance to reflect on the duo’s dust-ups when on opposite sides of the Liverpudlian football divide after being presented with photographic evidence of a 2015 altercation. He considers these strongly-held differences of opinion simply to be occupational hazards.
“[Merseyside derbies are] right up his street, right up my street, two fiery characters on a football pitch, so it’s absolute standard if there is a run in,” Gerrard said.
“I saw a picture recently and don’t think it was actually to do with me or him, I think it was to do with Jordan Henderson. Either he’s got hold of my shirt or I’ve got hold of his shirt.
“He’s the type of player that you could wipe him out – either accidentally, or meaning to do it – and after the game he’ll shake your hand, hug, no problem and move on. That’s the way I try to be and that is the way it should be.”
Gerrard’s patent regard for Naismith will set him apart from the Rangers support, who have never forgiven the attacker for electing not to TUPE over his contract to the Rangers newco that would start out in Scotland’s fourth tier after liquidation of the oldco in 2012.
Yet it appeared such bad blood could be cast to one side when the player’s lucrative Norwich City stint ended last summer. There were suggestions the Ibrox club could be interested in returning Naismith to Govan, despite the Scotland international having spent the previous year-and-a-half on loan at Hearts. Gerrard gives an intriguing answer when asked if Naismith had ever come into his thinking.
“Into the thinking, possibly, because tonnes and tonnes of players in all the different positions, we have long, long lists of everyone,” Gerrard said. “But, it’s never been something I’ve had to make a decision on.”
The 39-year-old is in no doubt that the decisions Hearts make on the pitch are enhanced when Naismith is there careering around and cajoling team-mates.
“He brings a lot of energy, a goal threat, that busy-ness or pesty-ness, whatever you want to call it, about the team,” said Gerrard. “He’s full of energy and still has that energy he had as a younger player. He makes Hearts better.”
◆ Jermain Defoe has agreed to join Rangers on a permanent deal in the summer.
The 37-year-old striker, who has been on loan from Bournemouth this season, has signed a pre-contract agreement with the Ibrox club for the 2020-21 campaign.
Speaking on the Rangers website about the move, Defoe said: “I’m just delighted, to be honest.”
Defoe, who spent the second half of last season on loan at Rangers from Bournemouth, has scored 24 goals in 48 appearances for the Glasgow club.