Steven Naismith insists third has "got to be the aim" for Hearts this season - but has warned they are "doomed to fail" if they set their sights too high, too soon.

Naismith raised eyebrows when he claimed that finishing the best of the rest behind the Old Firm would be ‘nice’ but was not the ‘be-all and end-all’ in the coming weeks.

The comments came just 24 hours after Tynecastle chief executive Andrew McKinlay had admitted the prospect of missing out on third - and up to £6 million of income from European football - had helped convince directors to sack Robbie Neilson.

The Jambos slipped down to fourth with defeat to St Mirren in Neilson’s final game in charge but, without the hoped-for managerial bounce at the weekend, subsequently fell further behind Aberdeen in third.

The Gorgie men are now five points adrift after losing their first Edinburgh derby in 10 games with Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Hibernian at Easter Road.

Naismith is adamant he knows the importance of finishing third, which is expected to land group stage football in Europe next season, but has cautioned that a lot of improvements are required in the short-term if they are to have any chance of reining in Aberdeen.

He said: "From the club’s point of view, third is the aim - it’s got to be the aim.

"Two or three years ago we were in the Championship and strides have been made and you get the taste of European football.

"And what comes from that is expectation.

"The club have got to strive to be better. In the background, there’s loads of good stuff going on.

"But, for me, if you don’t win games then you’re not going to be in the mix for that [third spot].

"What we first of all need to think about is enjoying playing football, which then gets you more chances in games and gets you wins.

"And then we’ll look come the last few games of the season and say, ‘right, are we in the pack for it or are we not?’.

"That’s got to be the way you look at it. If you look at it any other way or you set it up any other way then I think you’re doomed to fail.

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"You can’t look beyond where you’re at, at this moment in time.

"So, for me, it’s about, first, performance and, secondly, getting the result, which will come from a good performance.

"And then when you go into the split you play everybody anyway, so that’s the telling part of the season, really.”

Naismith revealed ahead of the trip across the city to face Hibs that he had already implemented a raft of changes behind the scenes after being placed in charge of the team for the rest of the campaign.

But has confessed he does not expect to see Hearts peaking until the season is almost over.

With just six games remaining, he added: "Change obviously came and we needed to change things that were happening, rather than staying in the rut we were in. And we’ve done that.

"As a player, and I experienced it myself, there’s a part of you that stays in that kind of default mode which has been drilled into you over the last two or three years with the previous manager.

"We’re asking them to do things that are different and unknown, and they need to grasp that quickly.

"In terms of how quickly it will change, I still think very quickly we can be successful, in terms of winning games.

"But is it going to be perfect? It’s not going to be perfect until maybe the last few games of the season.”

Meanwhile, Naismith has tempered supporters’ hopes after the return to first-team training of Liam Boyce and Beni Baningime following lay-offs due to cruciate knee ligament injuries.

The experienced Boyce, 32, has been sidelined since August, whilst Baningime, the 24-year-old former Everton midfielder, has been out of action since March last year.

Asked on Sky Sports when Boyce would make his comeback, Naismith added: "The answer to that question is I don’t know exactly. But what I do know is him and Beni are back in the group.

"That’s not full sessions, that’s not we’ll see how they are come Friday afternoon. That is early stages with the group to get involved in the warm-ups, the different technical drills we do and then, potentially, going a bit further.

"That will be scaled up in the next month and will be determined between the physios and how these players are feeling.

"But it’s great to have them around the group. There’s loads of experience, especially with Boycey, and everybody is delighted to have them back out [training].

"They’ve both been out with bad injuries and, I know from being in their position, getting back on the grass is a massive part of it."