HIS season started so well, yet John Sutton meets former club Motherwell on Sunday once again fighting for a place in the Hearts team. He has spent the last month on the substitutes’ bench since being deposed by teenager Callum Paterson and is desperate to regain the confidence of manager John McGlynn.
Bit-part sub roles are no good to an experienced striker approaching the peak years of his career.
Sutton has been here before. He fell out of former Hearts coach Paulo Sergio’s plans early last season and was later loaned to Central Coast Mariners of Australia. He returned with fresh optimism when McGlynn replaced the Portuguese at Tynecastle and started the 2012/13 campaign with three goals in four pre-season friendlies. Then came another two in Hearts’ opening three league games. He was leading the attack and seemed ready to replicate the goalscoring feats which made him so successful at previous clubs like St Mirren and Motherwell.
Somewhere things went wrong but Sutton stressed there is no deja vu over his recent omission. “This time it’s different,” he told the Evening News. “Last year didn’t go great for me at all at Hearts. Paulo wanted to play a totally different way and, from what he explained to me, he looked at the personnel and felt he wanted to play in a way I didn’t fit into. He wanted five in midfield and he explained that to me. It was his opinion.
“It’s not impossible for me to get back into the team here. I’ve never been a striker whose game is totally about goals. I’ve always managed to get a decent tally but my game is all about bringing other players into play and creating chances. I feel I’ve done that this year, both from the start and off the bench. Football is a big squad game and everyone needs to play their part. If I’m playing I want to do my bit, and if not then hopefully the boys can do their jobs and push us up the league.
“I had a really good pre-season and started the season really well. We were unbeaten in the league but the manager wanted to mix it up a little bit. I’ve been coming off the bench rather than starting games recently, which is always disappointing, but it’s still early days. I think the manager wanted to try something different. He’s the manager and he picks the team. All you can do is keep working away and hopefully you get a chance again.
“I think my performances have been decent and I’ve done pretty well when I’ve come on as sub. At the end of the season, you want to look back and see that you made a good contribution to a successful season.”
The common perception is that Sutton isn’t suited to a playing as a centre forward flanked by two wingers, the system McGlynn has employed since taking charge. “Most strikers will tell you they prefer to play in a team where there are lots of chances created. In the past I’ve always played as part of a two-man attack and I enjoyed that,” said the Englishman.
“But that’s not to say the three we’re playing at the moment can’t work. Undoubtedly the problem Hearts have had during the two seasons I’ve been here is getting the three forwards to work; getting them scoring goals and creating chances. Whether we play with three or two up front, we need to get the attacking side going. We have a good defence and midfield so if we get that sorted we are going to be a pretty formidable team.”
Paterson, who recently turned 18, is something of a makeshift striker at senior level having started the campaign at right-back. However, he featured there regularly in the Hearts youth team under coach Darren Murray. Whilst McGlynn has bemoaned a lack of attacking options in the first-team squad, Sutton is encouraged by those challenging for his position and believes they will help Hearts improve on a league position of ninth.
“Callum has done well. He’s certainly a very fit lad,” he continued. “We have other strikers here who shouldn’t be underestimated. Gordon Smith has been here a long time and isn’t a youngster any more and will be looking to play. Dale Carrick has been with the Scotland Under-21 squad and is developing quickly. That all takes the pressure off.
“Whether you’re starting or coming on as sub, we need to get the results going as a team and get winning games. As much as I’m concerned because I’d like to be starting games, the main thing is for the team to move up the league table.
“We play Motherwell on Sunday and when I was there it was always a small squad. That allowed the younger players a chance, then they become established. That happened with Jamie Murphy and Bob McHugh. We can do just as well as they have with our squad.
“It’s funny with Motherwell because everyone writes them off every year. They lose players each summer, everyone thought Steve Jennings leaving and Stephen Craigan retiring would have a big effect. But they have a good manager and they are going to be up there again this year.”
Sutton goes on to reveal that he would probably never have joined Hearts in summer 2011 had the Lanarkshire club offered him a contract extension first. “I never really wanted to leave Motherwell. What happened was that, with the manager changing and other things, they never got round to discussing a contract with me until late in the day.
“I was out of contract and had Hearts making me a concrete offer and saying they wanted me. Having played at Tynecastle, it’s a fantastic place to play. Hearts had just finished third and I thought moving there would be a step forward in my career. I decided that’s where I wanted to play my football and I’m really pleased I came here.
“I’d had a pretty average start to the season in my final year at Motherwell. I wanted to stay and I made that clear, even when I was doing well. If they had offered something before the end of that season I’d certainly have considered staying. The manager and the chief executive said they weren’t in a position to do that till they had worked out budgets. All the time Hearts were knocking on the door and saying ‘come here’.
“Motherwell had reached the Scottish Cup final but some players were being linked with moves away, like Darren Randolph, Jamie Murphy and Steven Hammell. It was an uncertain time regarding what sort of Motherwell team I’d have gone back to after the summer. So I chose to leave.
“My first season didn’t go well at Hearts but I went to Australia and we finished top of the league over there. I’d loved to have stayed here and done well but I wouldn’t say the season was a write-off given what happened in Australia. Now I want to keep my head down and be successful at Hearts, maybe get a run in the one of the cups again and finish high up the SPL.”