Steven Naismith: “I would regret it if I’d never done anything like this”

Is Steven Naismith Britain's kindest footballer? The Everton star talks motivation, raising awareness – and befriending Sir Jackie Stewart

Heard the one about the footballer driving around in his flashy sports car, dressed as Santa, handing out money to homeless people?

This fanciful tale – featuring high-value, low-goalscoring striker Mario Balotelli, then of Manchester City, his Ferarri, a light-blue Father Christmas outfit and a bag of cash – went viral in 2011. Sadly, Balotelli, now with Liverpool, later revealed it was too good to be true. But take a short stroll across Stanley Park and you might just find the real deal.

Everton forward Steven Naismith, pictured at the club's Finch Farm training ground.

Steven Naismith, the Everton and Scotland forward, has made a name for himself as a bit of a do-gooder. As well as boosting the coffers of two homeless charities, he sends free match-day tickets to Jobcentres, backs a scheme to help ex-servicemen find work and, after overcoming dyslexia as a young boy, is an ambassador for Dyslexia Scotland.

Is he Britain’s kindest footballer? Naismith laughs, perhaps embarrassed by the question. He isn’t convinced. “A lot of footballers do great work,” he says, modestly. “Everyone’s got their things that they feel passionate about. A lot of what goes on gets missed.”

The Big Issue is meeting Naismith at Everton’s plush Finch Farm training complex. The Scot, his legs bearing the cuts and bruises typical of the Premier League’s most-fouled player, is a diminutive figure. But to many, he’s a selfless giant.

The 28-year-old grew up in Stewarton, a small rural town in East Ayrshire, and began his career at Kilmarnock before making a £2m move to Rangers in 2007 – the club he’d supported all his life. He was winning trophies for fun at Ibrox and in 2010 started funding Christmas lunches for Glasgow’s homeless with charity Loaves and Fishes.

A lot of footballers do great work. Everyone’s got their thing they’re passionate about

“I was an established player. I was working hard, in the team, and I thought I could afford to go and take something else on,” Naismith explains.

Fast-forward four years and Naismith – who moved to Everton after Rangers’ financial collapse in 2012 – is now lighting up the most glamorous league in the world. He still pays for hundreds of Christmas lunches in Glasgow and expanded this support to his adopted city, having done the same for Liverpool’s Whitechapel Centre for the past two years. “It’s been fantastic. And it’s same again this year. I’ll do it every year.”

What drives him to do this?

“I’ve grown up and stumbled into a job that is really just a hobby,” he says. “It’s turned out to be a good career and is something I love doing. As I’ve got to my mid-20s, I’ve thought that I have such a platform to give something back. These are just small things that don’t impact on the focus on football, wee things that I can do on the side that make a big difference to people.

“The best thing about it is when you get to go along, whether it’s Loaves and Fishes or the Whitechapel Centre, and you get to chat away to the characters. Mostly it’s football chat but they’ll tell you how grateful they are and how much it means to them. And that’s what it’s all about, to see what it means to so many people.

“I’d look back on it as a regret if I’d gone through my career and never done anything like this. It’s too late when you’re a washed-up footballer. It’s a prime opportunity now, with the massive amount of media and social media that follows football, and the Premier League in particular.

I’ve grown up and stumbled into a job that is hobby. I have such a platform to give something back

“There’s an audience out there who are so busy with what’s going on in their own lives that they maybe lose awareness of what is going on in the world. If we can raise awareness or help in any way then that makes it all worthwhile.”

When he’s not spearheading one of the most exciting Everton teams in decades, Naismith leads a quiet life at home in Cheshire with his wife Moya, a dentist, and their 18-month-old daughter Lacey. Fatherhood, he says, has struck him unlike anything else.

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“It’s been fantastic and it only gets better,” he beams. “This will be the first Christmas that she’ll have an idea of what’s going on. People say becoming a dad changes you, and maybe I was a little blasé about it but it definitely does. It makes you realise what’s important.”

Unlike the majority of his top-level colleagues, Naismith has publicly lamented the price punters must pay to watch their teams. Recognising the power football can harness, he says Everton as a club is “run the right way, helping the right people” – highlighting the People’s Picnics, launched by the club two seasons ago to help local families who have fallen on hard times. “You see a lot of great work that goes on here, you see people’s lives changing and that definitely drives and inspires you to contribute.”

Steven Naismith and Sir Jackie Stewart

Earlier this season Naismith took things into his own hands. Working with Jobcentres across Liverpool, he bought and donated a handful of Everton season tickets, with local offices handing out match-day tickets to the unemployed. “I thought of people who are trying hard to get back into work but not having much success,” he explains. “They might be losing their motivation, and I thought a day out at the football might help. It might help them think it’s all worth it.

“The couple of people I’ve met so far that have been along have known the history of the club inside out. They have stories about going to the football 20-30 years ago. They’ve told me it does a lot for their motivation. It can be hard when they’re putting in CVs and applying for jobs to get knockback after knockback, there’s only so much people can take before they think, is this worth it?”

And it doesn’t stop there. Last year Naismith launched a new initiative north of the border focused on helping injured soldiers back into employment, set up following a moving letter he received from a soldier serving in Afghanistan.

There’s only so much people can take before they think, is this worth it?

In his hometown he ties in his sponsorship of his boyhood club, Stewarton Annick, once run by Naismith’s dad, with his support for Dyslexia Scotland. As well as buying equipment and treating the different Annick age groups to days out at Goodison Park, the club also carries the charity’s logo on its strips.

“These mums and dads and volunteers, they’re the ones that make it all tick,” Naismith says. “I know how hard it is for even such a small football club to run, from volunteers to the sponsorship, and I saw firsthand how hard my dad worked to run the club.

“I like to think this is a way of giving something back. Everybody knows everybody in the town I grew up in. You’re always close to the charity work that went on, and I got to understand what it does for the local community.”

Steven Naismith at a Christmas lunch for the homeless in Glasgow held Loaves and Fishes

What Naismith didn’t know, however, was that this hometown venture would create an unlikely bond with a trio of Scottish knights. “When I was at Rangers, I got a text from the chairman at the time, Sir David Murray, saying his friend ‘Sean’ wanted to speak with me,” Naismith explains.

“I didn’t even know if it was meant for me. Then about a week later I came in from training and I had a voicemail from Sir Sean Connery! He was at home in Barbados and had read an article in which I’d said I was dyslexic and how I’d found it hard to read at school. He mentioned his friend Jackie, and said it would be great if we could do something together.

“I phoned him back – not realising it was the middle of the night – and we had a great conversation about football, and then he mentioned that his friend, Sir Jackie Stewart, was chairman of Dyslexia Scotland. I’ve had amazing conversations with Sir Jackie Stewart since, and we held a launch for a new Dyslexia Scotland book soon after. It’s quite unbelievable, actually.”