AS HE zipped the Gucci suitcases shut and took one last look round his beachside Australian home last month, John Sutton probably felt more excitement than regret. The loan at Central Coast Mariners worked out extremely well.
He won the league and revitalised himself for returning to Hearts, the club which parted company with Scottish Cup-winning manager Paulo Sergio while Sutton was Down Under. For the Englishman, the above events conspire to offer him the perfect fresh start.
Sutton was notably out of favour under Sergio, hence the three-month move to Australia’s central coast to acquire much-needed game time. A productive period playing in Gosford combined with John McGlynn replacing the Portuguese at Tynecastle means Sutton can anticipate a new beginning 12 months after joining Hearts from Motherwell. As the most experienced striker now at the club, he will hope to play a pivotal role in the forthcoming campaign.
In his favour is McGlynn’s tendency to employ a two-man forward line. He used this tactic often with former club Raith Rovers and last season relied on a big-man/little-man combination of Brian Graham and John Baird up front. Playing alongside a partner is Sutton’s preference, rather than operating as a lone striker. He will be keen for McGlynn to continue in that manner following his return from Australia. The two Smiths, David and Gordon, are the only others vying for striking berths, although reinforcements may arrive before the new season begins.
According to Graham Arnold, the Central Coast Mariners coach, Sutton was very adept as part of a two-man attack in Australia. “When he first came out to us, one of the hardest things to adapt to was the summer football we play here,” Arnold told the Evening News. “The temperatures were hard for him initially, but he adjusted to that quite well. During the time he spent with us he was a fantastic pro. He worked extremely hard, he gave us some good qualities and he helped us win the league. We had a good time with John. I think he was a guy who had high standards and that rubbed off on a lot of our young players because we have a young team. He was excellent for us while he was here.
“I play a narrow diamond formation with a number ten in behind two strikers. It’s basically a 4-3-1-2. John played as a target man with a mobile guy next to him and a creative number ten behind them. John did well for us by holding the ball up and giving us a different aspect to the way we could play. Before he came I had two mobile players up front but I lost one of them to South Korea in the transfer window. I wanted to change our style a bit so John came out as a target man and did really well for the team.
“He came here with the mentality that he was going to enjoy the experience. I think he will have gone back with good memories. We won the competition here and I think John will have a new-found respect for Australian football, because it is different to the Scottish league and even the English league. It’s a bit more about athleticism here.”
The Mariners ultimately lost out on a place in the A-League Grand Final to Perth Glory but Sutton got what he wanted from the spell in Gosford. He played eight times, scoring once, and sampled the Asian Champions League in addition to Australia’s domestic competition. Crucially, he kept himself sharp in preparation for going back to Edinburgh and making an impression.
“John’s morale was quite high when he came here and I was very happy that he was fit when he arrived,” explained Arnold. “The first game he played in was a 4pm kick-off, so it was extremely hot. He only lasted 50-odd minutes because of the heat but, when we played night games and the conditions were much cooler, it was much more beneficial for him.”
Now he has swapped the blistering Australian sun for the relentless Scottish rain, he would be forgiven for being privately relieved that Sergio is no longer in charge of Hearts. Many mourned the Portuguese’s departure last month following the exhilaration of a 5-1 Scottish Cup final triumph over city rivals Hibs. But Sutton struggled to make an impact under Sergio during the first half of last season and was farmed out to Australia in February. Shortly after, Craig Beattie arrived to bolster Hearts’ attacking options.
“I think John always had the intention of going back to Hearts,” said Arnold. “He came out on loan only for three months and our competition is quite short here compared to Scotland. I think he was just happy to come out here for the experience with his wife and their twins. I’d say he did enjoy living in Australia for that period of time. On the field, I certainly had no complaints with him. He was a great pro, never injured, turned up to training every day with a smile on his face and worked very hard.”
That attitude can only stand him in good stead with McGlynn, a manager who admires honest toil in his players and who likes to have an attacking presence in his team. John Sutton’s Hearts career got off to a false start this time last year, but 12 months on he is surely ready to show his true capabilities.