THIS issue is probably debated more often on Gorgie Road than Fir Park Street. Nonetheless, it will certainly be pertinent in and around Motherwell this weekend: Why exactly did John Sutton have such a disappointing spell at Hearts?
The Englishman faces his former club on Saturday in the midst of a rich vein of form since returning to Motherwell. Five goals from 11 appearances this season denote a striker high on confidence, something Hearts supporters seldom saw when Sutton was clad in maroon.
He scored just 11 times in 58 games during a two-year spell in Edinburgh – a return which fell well short of both his and the fans’ expectations.
Sutton was signed by Jim Jefferies in summer 2011 after 17 goals in 46 games for Motherwell the previous season. Within weeks, Jefferies was sacked and replaced by Paulo Sergio, and Sutton’s freefall gathered pace when he was loaned to Central Coast Mariners of Australia.
Changes of manager certainly did not help the player, with John McGlynn and the current incumbent Gary Locke succeeding Sergio. Sutton returned to Fir Park in June as Hearts entered administration. Yet there is an argument that the 29-year-old’s productivity depends on him being deployed in a specific way.
Motherwell reap dividends from Sutton by positioning other forwards closely around him and encouraging him to link up with team-mates. At Hearts, particularly during his early months, he was frequently an isolated centre-forward expected to fasten on to crosses from wingers. It clearly wasn’t a role to which he was well suited despite his obvious physical presence.
“John had a disappointing spell at Hearts. It didn’t really work out for him but we were delighted to get him back in. He is really important to us,” explained Motherwell’s assistant manager, Kenny Black. “I don’t really know what happened at Hearts. Jim Jefferies and Billy Brown brought him in, then they left. When there’s a change of manager, a change of system, maybe finances are involved, these things can happen at any club.
“It was certainly an unhappy time for John. He was really keen and excited by his move to Hearts. He’s buckled down and once again he’s enjoying his football and sometimes that happens. He had a good spell with Motherwell prior to leaving so he knows exactly what he’s coming back to. He’s a pleasure to work with.
“We like to play with players in and alongside a target man. John is at his best when he’s winning his flick-ons and bringing other people into play. That’s certainly a major factor in why we brought him back because Michael Higdon, who left us in the summer, was very similar. John feeds off that and we try to get support to him because he does win his fair share of balls. He’s an awkward player to play against and that’s how we try to utilise him.
“I don’t think John will treat Saturday any differently. Obviously it’s his old team, but he’s had that many clubs that he’s got a few old teams, hasn’t he? He’ll be totally focused for playing against Hearts.”
Black added that Sutton’s similarity to Higdon – last season’s PFA Scotland Player of the Year – made him perfect to fill that void as the focal point of Motherwell’s attack. “When Stuart McCall and myself came to Motherwell [late in 2010], we had a terrific half a season with John before he joined Hearts. We know what we’re getting with John. I’m not saying he’s a direct replacement for Michael Higdon but we tried to get the same kind of player, a target man. One thing about John Sutton is he conducts himself from Monday to Friday just the same as he plays on a Saturday. His attitude and willingness and enthusiasm during the week are all carried into the games. He’s a terrific professional and a pleasure to work with. He’s getting a little boost now because he’s adding some goals to his game.”
Sutton’s confidence had fallen during his time at Hearts and he was frustrated with his goals-to-games ratio. “I think John would be the one to answer what he was like mentally when he came back,” said Black. “He would have been a little bit weary like everybody else. He has left a fantastic club which is going through difficult times and probably his confidence was a bit low because he didn’t have a lot of game time. His goals tally wasn’t what he would have wanted because he didn’t have enough games to sustain a consistent run.
“I know he was delighted when he finally got off the mark this season and you can see how much every goal he scores for Motherwell means to him. Strikers are like any player. When they’re playing at the top of their confidence and scoring goals, they’re a boost to any club. John looks like he’s enjoying his football just now and putting his difficult times at Hearts behind him.”
Sutton’s personal fortunes have taken an upturn, but back at Tynecastle there is no sign of administration ending soon. Locke continues working with a young and inexperienced squad trying to overhaul a 15-point deduction. This weekend’s aim is to end a run of five league games without victory.
“Hearts have had to put up with all sorts over the last few years,” said Black, who played at Tynecastle between 1984 and 1989. “I had five enjoyable years at Hearts. Some tremendous highs and a number of lows, going back to 1986 and all these things. I still look out for their results and they are an institution as one of the most famous clubs in Scotland.
“I’m just delighted they’ve managed to survive, a lot of which I think is down to the supporters and what the club means to them. They are all young kids this year with a sprinkling of experience. Those kids will go in there and fight and they’ve shown some tremendous spirit so far. The Ross County game would’ve been a real hammer blow to them. To lose the game after being in control for so long was a difficult one. Yet they came back and got through extra time and penalties against Queen of the South a few days later when they could easily have folded.
“Their last game against St Mirren would have been a disappointment to them but, with Gary Locke and Billy Brown behind the scenes, they will be galvanised again. If they can string a few results together and hang on to the coat tails of two or three teams above them, I’m sure they’ll give it their all. You wouldn’t rule out survival, but it will be a difficult task.”