Steven Naismith: Is this Britain’s kindest footballer?

Steven Naismith sounds genuinely uncomfortable when the label “Britain’s kindest footballer” is put to him.

“It’s nice, but I don’t think I am — there’s a lot of people doing great work,” he tells CNN. “To me, it’s more about making a difference than anything like that.”

The 29-year-old, who plays for English Premier League side Everton and his native Scotland, is certainly doing that.

In fact, he’s about as far from the modern stereotype of a millionaire soccer star as it is possible to get.

Not one for flashy cars or emerging from nightclubs in the wee small hours, he eschews the spotlight — unless he is using it to highlight the plight of those less fortunate.

Echoing the Father Christmas fable, Naismith embarks on his own seasonal visits to assist those in need, treating the patrons of two homeless charities to turkey with all the trimmings.

One of these visits is in Glasgow, where he used to play for Rangers — the blue half of a famously divided football city. Rangers’ rivalry with Celtic is one of the fiercest in the world game.

“It’s amazing the different backgrounds of people that come through the doors each day,” Naismith says from the Loaves and Fishes Center in East Kilbride.

“They’ve all got a different story that brought them to this point. They’ll tell you a little bit about themselves and they’ll also give you a straightforward opinion.

“I always get honest appraisals of my football! Obviously I played for Rangers in the past — some of those fans want to talk about when I played for them, and a few Celtic fans have a dig at me!

“There are also people there who couldn’t care less about football.”

But Naismith’s good nature doesn’t end there.

He also donates two tickets for every home Everton Premier League match to local people who are struggling to find employment.

He’s an ambassador for Dyslexia Scotland, having suffered as a boy, and does his bit for Help for Heroes, helping ex-servicemen and women to find work.

So where does this philanthropic streak come from?

“I think it’s from my background and the parents I’ve got,” he explains. “I grew up learning to respect people and never to judge anybody on first impressions.

“I’ve got a great group of friends, I’ve got a young family myself and I can appreciate how hard it is for some people.

“My father is a social worker and works at a residential school. I used to go along to their camps in the north of Scotland. At the time I didn’t really realize it, but these kids were much worse off than myself and in really difficult situations.

“It’s been with me from a young age. We stay in a small village with a strong sense of community and everyone helps everyone — all these different aspects have definitely played a part.”

Naismith began his career at Kilmarnock before moving to Rangers — the most successful club in Scottish football, with 54 league titles to its name — in 2007.

Once he had established himself in the first team, he decided it was time to give something back.

After a brief search, he settled on Loaves and Fishes — and the impact he has made is immeasurable, according to the center’s chairman Denis Curran.

“The difference this makes is unbelievable — you couldn’t put a price tag on it,” Curran told CNN. “I’m not kidding: they will only stop talking about his visit this time next year! It’s a big, big thing.

“People don’t realize the way our visitors look at it — they think: ‘He came all that way to see me.’ They take it as personal to them. They don’t have many people in their life, so it is important they know somebody.

“If I’m walking through Glasgow, you hear some boys shouting: ‘Denis!’ That’s the mentality. I know them — that is someone who knows me. It’s the same with Steven.”

The second of Naismith’s festive visits takes place at the Whitechapel Centre in Liverpool, the northern city that is home to his club Everton.

He has spent three seasons on Merseyside and is part of the Scotland team that narrowly missed out on qualification for Euro 2016 in November.

Though not a regular feature in the Everton side this season, he scored a memorable hat-trick after coming on as a substitute as it beat defending EPL champion Chelsea 3-1.

While he’s not getting much time on the pitch, he has been affording jobless locals the chance to watch the Toffees’ matches through a link-up with a local job center.

“It’s something that I feel strongly about,” he said.

“There’s people that are maybe out of work and struggling to get jobs at this moment in time, and it’s through no fault of their own or for the lack of trying.

“It can be pretty demoralizing at times, and if they can get an afternoon at the football — maybe they used to go but can’t afford to now or can’t get there — it can take their mind off their troubles and lift their spirits a bit to keep on searching.

“So it goes to people who have actively been trying as hard as they can with not great success but who are still showing signs of getting back into work.

“We started that last season, and it’s been a great success.”

Naismith gives short shrift to the way in which modern footballers are often portrayed in the press — as preening, self-absorbed and entitled stars with little thought for the fans or community around them.

“I think it’s unfair that footballers have got this reputation,” he said. “There’s a massive amount of work that goes on, right the way from the Premier League in England to the individual clubs and individual players.

“A lot of players have got their own charity foundations and are involved in different projects. It’s a small minority of bad press that gets highlighted.

“Within our changing rooms, there’s a lot of guys getting involved in things and giving me their backing for what I’m doing. There’s a lot of goodwill out there from a lot of footballers.”

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