Hearts chief executive Andrew McKinlay expressed pride and admiration after seeing manager Steven Naismith block out the early-season “noise” to set the Jambos firmly on course for third place in the cinch Premiership.
Naismith’s team have won 11 of their last 14 league matches to pull 12 points clear of fourth-placed Kilmarnock as they bid to secure European group-stage football for next season.
However, Naismith – who was initially handed the title of technical director last summer due to his lack of a UEFA Pro Licence preventing him being manager for the Conference League qualifiers in August – came under intense pressure after winning just three of the opening 10 Premiership matches.
Less than two months ago, at the club’s mid-December AGM in the wake of back-to-back defeats by Rangers and Aberdeen, Hearts chief McKinlay had to field questions from angry supporters about the 37-year-old’s suitability for the role – but he has impressively silenced the doubters since then.
“After the last game of last season, there were a lot of fans who wanted us to appoint Steven (following his spell as interim manager) and then as we came into this season that seemed to drift away and it became noisy quickly,” McKinlay – speaking as Hearts opened the Tynecastle Park Hotel inside the stadium’s main stand – told the PA news agency.
“Some of that might have been around the issue we had to face with the job titles etc, which Steven was fully accepting of because he knew that was the only way we could do it with the European rules. That probably didn’t help him, but Steven never complained during that period.
“Steven’s also very understanding of the demands of the Hearts fans. Other people might say ‘why are they like that?’, ‘why are they so demanding?’ but he’s never said anything like that, he accepts the way they are.
“Yes, I’m sure sometimes he would like it if they took a little bit longer to go against the team (during matches) but that’s how it is, he’s played out there, he understands it.
“I’ve never seen anyone that works as hard as he does. He will never fail through lack of hard work. He has a very clear confidence in what he does and he’s stuck to what he thinks is right.
“He doesn’t tend to fluctuate up or down, he’s very measured. He always believed in himself and he believes in his process and the way he works. He’s kept faithful to that and it’s starting to bear fruit. I’m delighted for him.”
Hearts looked on course to finish third at this time last year when they were seven points clear of fourth-place Livingston, only to be reeled in and overtaken by Aberdeen following a run of six defeats in eight league games under previous boss Robbie Neilson, which resulted in his sacking in April.
McKinlay, having boasted in an interview in December 2022 that Hearts “welcome the chase from those behind us”, was mocked on social media by Aberdeen chairman Dave Cormack after the Dons pipped them to European group-stage football.
The Tynecastle chief is confident there will be no repeat under Naismith in the coming months but is wary of taking anything for granted.
“This time last year we had been on a good run but, although I can’t put my finger on why, it does feel different this time,” he said.
“We’re in a great position as the league stands but we’re very well aware of what happened last year. The team are well aware of it as well.
“I’m confident we can get over the line but given what happened last year none of us are complacent about it.”