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Rejuvenated Steven Naismith aiming to make his mark in derby

As a boyhood Rangers fan, Steven Naismith was never allowed to travel from his home in Stewarton to watch the Old Firm do battle at Celtic Park.

“I never went to Parkhead when I was young. It was a bit rough,” he revealed with a grin.

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There is little chance of it being any calmer in Glasgow’s East End tomorrow lunchtime, when Naismith’s side take on their old rivals for the first time this season.

There is rarely any need to talk up these games in advance, but the fact that both sides appear to be so evenly matched at the start of the campaign has undoubtedly added an extra edge to proceedings.

Both have matched the Scottish Premier League record for most consecutive victories at the start of a season with eight, but only one can go on now to achieve nine-in-a-row. Predict a winner? You’d be as well tossing a coin.

Naismith’s childhood angst about the prospect of a trip to Parkhead did not take long to wear off. As a Kilmarnock player he scored there on two separate occasions, albeit his goals were unable to prevent the Ayrshire club falling to heavy defeats both times.

The 24-year-old has played in Old Firm games in the past without making a noticeable contribution, but now things are different.

His form in the early part of this season has seen him score a match-winning goal in the Champions League against Bursaspor. He has also claimed his first ever international goal, scoring for Scotland against world champions Spain no less.

A level of expectation follows him around now, with the Rangers supporters looking to him as someone who can make a difference in the matches that matter.

A career that threatened to splutter out following a cruciate ligament injury that sidelined him for eight months is again up and running with Naismith seemingly determined to make up for lost time.

“Obviously, it would be delightful to get a goal in the Old Firm derby,” he said. “It’s what you dream about when you’re a kid and you’re watching the games.

“I’ve been unfortunate with injuries in the past and it’s disappointing when the big games come around – not just Celtic but Champions League games, too – and you’re not involved. Hopefully, I’ll be in the team on Sunday and put in a good performance.

“I was involved when we won 2-1 at Ibrox [against Celtic last October]. That was a good feeling and I want more of that.”

Naismith has been watching developments across the city with interest. Unsurprisingly, he has been impressed with what he has seen and believes Celtic look a side rejuvenated under the leadership of Neil Lennon.

“People talk about our great start to the season, but Celtic have matched that, so they’ll definitely fancy their chances at Parkhead.

“Neil Lennon has brought that bit of spirit back to Celtic. I saw a bit of their game with Dundee United last weekend and you can see their enthusiasm and the will to win.

“United made it very tough for Celtic and they maybe thought it wasn’t to be, but they fought right to the end. Tomorrow, we’re going to need to do that.”

Naismith’s talent on the field is matched only by his skills of diplomacy off it. Informed that Gary Hooper, the Celtic striker, had openly set his sights on overhauling Rangers’ Kenny Miller to finish as the league’s top scorer, Naismith offered a raised eyebrow and a wry smile before responding.

“He’s still probably got a wee bit to go, but, like Kenny, he pops up and gets goals. He might not be involved in games that much but he’ll always be in the box as a predator. [Kris] Boydy got a lot of goals but Kenny’s up there as a great finisher.”

Rangers enter tomorrow’s contest on the back of a draining European match against Valencia on Wednesday night, but Naismith shot down any suggestion that tiredness could influence how things pan out.

“When you’re on a winning roll and putting in good performances, that doesn’t come into your mind. This is a massive game and if you can’t get up for that you shouldn’t be playing football.”

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