FROM the minute he appeared on the Tannadice touchline, it was clear John Souttar was in for a hostile reception on his Dundee United return.
Jeers and boos echoed around the stadium as the teenager prepared to come on as a substitute before half-time on Saturday. He expected as much, for the United fans were taunting him during games even before he left.
Souttar joined Hearts for around £150,000 just minutes before the January transfer window closed, ending a long saga about his future. He became a target for disgruntled United supporters in the weeks leading up to deadline day. Some fans felt he wasn’t fully committed to their cause. That wasn’t the case but it nonetheless forced the defender to develop a thick skin quickly.
The hardened shell served him well at the weekend as he returned to Tannadice for the first time with his new club. After Jordan McGhee’s 39th-minute red card, a hurried substitution saw Hearts replace Dario Zanatta with Souttar to shore up their defence. He was heckled emerging from the dugout, jeered on the touchline, booed entering the field and then had his every touch mocked.
“It didn’t bother me, I’m used to it,” he said. “They did that to me for the last wee while when I was a player there. That helped me get used to it. It’s just one of those things. People have their own opinions on stuff and, as a footballer, you need to deal with it. It doesn’t get to me at all. It was strange seeing the same people walking about the ground but I’m delighted to be at Hearts. I didn’t really think about it.”
Losing the match 2-1 irritated him far more, especially given Paul Paton’s 25-yard winner didn’t arrive until the 88th minute. “I was gutted to lose in the end. I thought we dominated the second half and it looked like they had the ten men rather than us. I think we were just waiting on a goal, then they hit that strike. It was an unbelievable goal from Pates and it’s a sickener for us. We’re looking above us but we can’t dwell on it. We’ve lost two games in a row and it will take leaders to get us back up and going again.
“When I was at United, we couldn’t win for months and months. That happens to teams. When you go through periods like this it’s a learning curve. You need to experience it for the team to be stronger. Hopefully we’ll come out the other side stronger as a group. Sometimes it takes that couple of bad results for the team to step up and for people to make a name for themselves.
“We all need to do that now. It doesn’t matter if you’re young, you need to step up and have your voice. There are a lot of leaders in that dressing-room, which is a good thing. There are a lot of people who aren’t afraid to step forward and tell you when you’re in the wrong. The whole dressing-room has to deal with this.”
Saturday’s defeat is put into context by the fact it was only Hearts’ second league reverse since September. That it followed a Scottish Cup loss against Hibs gives it greater magnitude. Souttar is convinced he and his new colleagues will overcome back-to-back disappointments as the campaign enters its critical phase. Their sole aim is now a Europa League qualifying place by finishing third – or second if possible.
“We’re looking above us in the table. We need points and we need to go for wins,” he admitted. “This is a very important time for us to get points and give Aberdeen a challenge of some sort. It’s just gutting to concede a winner so late on. It has been hectic recently. I’ve played in two games but a lot of the boys played a lot of football in the last couple of weeks. That takes its toll physically and mentally. That isn’t an excuse, though. We’ve got to be going to Tannadice and winning. Hopefully we can make up for it this week.”
Souttar played right-back for Hearts at Tannadice and is willing to accept game time there or in midfield as he continues learning his trade. “I knew when I signed here it would be tough to break into the team. When you get your chance, you need to take it,” he acknowledged. “There are a lot of good players, a lot of good pros, and especially a lot of good defenders in the squad. I knew that would make it difficult to get in. When you get that opportunity, you need to take it and make an impression. Hopefully I’ve done that.
“Long-term I’d want to play centre-half but if you see a lot of young centre-backs, they play right-back or centre midfield. If you’re going to fill in for the team, you’ve got to do that. I think even people like Chris Smalling and John Stones, who are now top young centre-halves, they were dotted about at right-back and positions like that when they were younger. It’s to be expected. With the standard of defenders we’ve got at Hearts, it’s going to be tough to break in.
“I see it as part of my learning curve. In the long run, you want to be settled and playing in one position but I don’t think it affects you too much if you can be adaptable. You want to show you can go in at right-back or play in centre mid. Centre-back is where I want to be in the long term, though.”