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Time is of the essence for Naismith

STEVEN Naismith is sitting at a table, talking about sitting mid-table.

Steven Naismith has gone from a bit-part player at Everton and Scotland to an almost certain starter for bothPhotograph: Craig Williamson/SNS
Steven Naismith has gone from a bit-part player at Everton and Scotland to an almost certain starter for bothPhotograph: Craig Williamson/SNS

To clarify, the Scotland inter- national is not refer- ring to the Barclays Premier League, where his Everton side went into the weekend occupying a Europa League spot, ahead incidentally of his former manager David Moyes at Manchester United, but instead to a rather innovative training spreadsheet introduced by his new Goodison gaffer Roberto Martinez.

"When the manager came in he made every day in training compet-itive so you get a point every day for being in the winning team whether it be a bounce match or shooting or something," Naismith reveals. "Every day you walk in the chart is up on the TV screen where all the players are. You will get a prize at the end if you win - it could be a nice piece of jewellery, a watch or tickets to go to the World Cup. There are always a lot of arguments over who has won but it definitely makes training more competitive. I'm only mid-table at the moment. At Christmas it got stopped: John Stones [the club's young defender] won the first half of the season and we've now started again. So it's all to play for."

The stats might belie it, but the 27-year-old is clearly doing something right during his sessions at the club's Finch Farm training ground. It wasn't so long ago that the former Kilmarnock and ­Rangers player couldn't get a kick for his club, finding his inter­national status downgraded from must-pick for his country under Craig Levein to occasional substitute under Gordon Strachan, but these are changed days.

Naismith has more than held his own amongst the multi-million pound talents of Roberto Martinez's squad, impressing the Spaniard sufficiently with his instinctive knack for the central attacking roles to keep even the highly-rated Ross Barkley out of the team.

In addition, his unselfish efforts for the national side make him favourite to lead the line when Scotland's Euro 2016 qualifiers kick off against Germany at the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund in September. While his fortunes could go down as well as up, he admits that thoughts of his own footballing mortality have helped concentrate his mind.

"The one thing I've noticed over the last 18 months is that your career does go by so quickly," said Naismith. "Older players always say your career is so short and play for as long as you can but I never really thought about it too much because I was always thinking 'I've got another five, six or seven years left to play'. But I have noticed now that it flies by. We're edging towards the end of this season and it has flown in. So I probably appreciate the level I am playing at and the opportun-ities I have and I don't want to miss any of it.

"I was never at the point where I was preparing to chap the manager's door; however, you do start to think about how important it is to play."

Naismith has thrived through competition and now it is hoped some similar striving can be the bedrock of Scotland's European Championship qualifying efforts. A major strand of Strachan's modus operandi involves working his players hard in training, allowing for in-form members of his squad to push into starting roles, and there is no disguising the confidence instilled by a five-match unbeaten run, four of which have been wins.

"Everyone is having to fight just to get in the squad," said Naismith. "Look at the bench in recent games - it is so strong and that is an indication of where we are now. Charlie Mulgrew and Scott Brown have been excellent in the holding midfield roles but you have Darren Fletcher back and James Morrison to come back who has been injured recently as well. There is so much quality and they are all pushing each other. Even if the rules hadn't changed and there weren't more teams qualifying we'd still fancy our chances and take the group we are in now."

Naismith isn't saying whether he regards Martinez as an upgrade over Moyes, but he certainly hopes for better fortunes for the man who signed him for Everton on a free transfer when he refused to TUPE his contract across amid the chaos at Rangers. Moyes' long-term job prospects remain uncertain, despite the Champions League win over Olympiacos but Naismith feels he deserves time to turn the squad around.

"It was going to be tough inevitably for the next manager after Sir Alex left, but everything which could have gone wrong probably has gone wrong," said Naismith. "From injuries to signings, and whatever else, but I think he is at the one club which will give him time and he deserves that because he showed over a long spell at Everton when he transformed the club from the lower half/ relegation side of the league to a top six or seven team. I think he needs to really stamp his authority, really turn it into his squad, not somebody else's.

"To be honest, transition like that is tough for any team - it even was for us at the start of the season. It was tough changing from being tight in defence and organised that way, to being very wide open and playing out from the back. We have been fortunate that the boys at the back especially have rolled into the new role pretty flexibly. But we started the season with three draws, and they were games we were expected to win. Every club has been through that spell; Manchester United's has just been a bit longer and bigger and there is more media spotlight on them."

Steven Naismith was speaking to publicise the launch of the PFA Scotland Player of the Year awards 2014 - sponsored by Cheque Centre.

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