STEVEN NAISMITH brought him back to the club. He believed in him. He gave him his European debut (though, if anyone from UEFA is reading this, that was – of course – actually Frankie McAvoy).

As he reflected upon a journey then that has taken him from being freed by his boyhood heroes, to returning and securing a contract until 2026, and now to the Scotland under-21 squad, Aidan Denholm is keen to thank the man who has – along with his own hard graft – done so much to make his dreams come true.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that when talking of these achievements, the Hearts midfielder prefers to focus on the role his manager played in it all, rather than his own dedication and hard work. You will go a long way before you meet a more grounded, humble, and self-effacing young man in the game.

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As a Hearts supporter himself, he understands all too well the frustrations that come when results aren’t going well on the pitch, and if he didn’t, his pals wouldn’t be slow in reminding him in any case.

“They just try to get a lot out of me, but I just give nothing away,” Denholm said.

“I saw a lot of them in Rosenborg, which was my debut, and that was a bit surreal. I was on the pitch and they were in the stands, which is where I was a few years ago. It is mental.

“I stay in Edinburgh and all my friends are there and even driving past them in my Hearts gear is just weird when I went to school with those boys.”

What he does try to explain to them on occasion though is that there is so much more to Naismith’s impact on the Tynecastle club than meets the eye, and not least of all on him.

"I owe him everything,” he said.

"He's been brilliant He's been a breath of fresh air. I worked with him in the B team, and I loved the style he had us playing.

"I have always got on with him very well. Even off the pitch, he knew straightaway if something was up or whatever.

"When I got told I had to go, he was the first one to talk to me and was straight on the phone. I got a trial at Wigan and then when I was coming back up the road with my dad he called me to say he had got the job and didn't want to let me go. He's been the biggest influence on me.

“Look, I’m a Hearts fan myself, so I want us to do well and obviously when we don’t get results it isn’t great, but the fans are passionate and they get their voice across.

“Like every other fans’ group, they want to see their team doing well. We have not had an easy run of form. It’s been a win, a draw, a loss and we need to start finding that consistency.

“I believe in the team that we’ve got. I believe we can easily do that.

"He phoned me to say I was in and he was delighted for me [when I was called up by Scotland]. Now I just need to try and get a cap. That would be brilliant.”

The type of modesty displayed by Denholm might not be the first thing you think of when picturing Naismith’s own on-field persona, but he has so far managed to resist mentioning his own heroics on his debut for his country at this level – a 4-0 win over Iceland back in 2006.

"He's not mentioned he scored with his first touch for the Under 21s!” Denholm laughed. “I'm surprised about that because I thought he would have!

"He's been the biggest influence in my career. I've had a lot of brilliant managers but he has been the best. Not just on the pitch, just off it.

"But I am really surprised he's not mentioned the first touch story!

"I can't speak highly enough of him."

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To paraphrase, it takes a village to raise a footballer, though. Denholm is hoping that earning his first caps in the forthcoming Under-21 European Championship qualifiers against Belgium and Hungary can start to repay the investment his family and coaches made in him, particularly those – like Naismith – who believed in him when he looked to be heading for the football scrapheap.

"My family are buzzing for me too,” he said.

“It's hard to even take it in. To go from last summer [when I was freed] to now has been a bit of a shock. It's been brilliant and I have loved it.

"I've not had an easy route, especially as I was part time in the beginning when everyone else was signing three-year deals, [that] wasn't the nicest. But I think it's made me who I am today.

"Even when things are going well I like to say I am pretty humble. You can't get too carried away. I've seen boys who can change like just like that.

"So I try and stay grounded which my family are good at [ensuring]. But also, enjoying it as well because I've not had the easiest ride.

"The young boys at Hearts see that I have had a few games and it maybe gives them some motivation to look at me and see what happens when you have a coach that trusts you."