John Souttar bucks the modern trend of footballers who too often put club before country.
The Hearts defender grew up in the Aberdeenshire village of Luthermuir and attended secondary school in nearby Laurencekirk. In his home region, Scotland’s national team is the pinnacle.
Watching Callum Paterson play against Malta last week left Souttar hugely inspired. His club colleague played the full 90 minutes as Scotland’s World Cup qualifying campaign began with a resounding 5-1 win. Two nights later, Souttar was sent off as Scotland Under-21s suffered a 4-0 drubbing in Ukraine.
The contrast in emotions has been dealt with and the centre-back, still only 19, is back on club duty today when Hearts host Hamilton. Given his upbringing, the ultimate aim is to join Tynecastle team-mates Paterson, Jack Hamilton and Tony Watt in the senior Scotland squad. He knows he has plenty of time.
“When you are growing up, you want to play for your country, especially where I’m from. In the north-east, Scotland is massive. That’s the big thing, playing for Scotland,” said Souttar. “It was drilled into me from a young age, that it was the ultimate honour. My dad, the whole family, they’re very big on that.
“So I know what it means to them that I’m playing for Scotland. It’s a great honour. My dad has been to a fair few Scotland games with his mates, travelling down to see them. So I know what it means to him. It is bigger than any club rivalry in the area because, where I am, there isn’t a big club. So, growing up, you were a Scotland fan first.
“Seeing Callum play on Sunday was definitely an inspiration, seeing what could be achieved. Everyone in the [Hearts] team will be looking at him playing for Scotland and thinking: ‘We must be doing well, maybe we can get there.’
“We’ve got to build on it. There is no point in just saying it’s brilliant to have one of ours playing for Scotland. You want more of our players in the team. If everyone keeps doing well, hopefully there are more who can reach that level.
“It’s a big boost for everyone to see a Hearts player win a Scotland cap because it’s been a few years since that happened. Let’s hope there can be a few more, as well, because we’ve already had Tony and Jack in the squad.”
The resignation of Ricky Sbragia as Scotland coach wasn’t a great surprise given a disappointing European Under-21 Championship qualifying campaign. He will revert to coaching younger youth teams within the Scottish FA and be replaced by Scot Gemmill.
“It was a bit of a strange night overall. We had no idea Ricky was going, we didn’t expect him to go at the end and the boys were disappointed,” said Souttar. “He came in and said: ‘Look, that’s me away, I’m moving to the younger teams.’
“I was away with Scot Gemmill when I was 16, with the Under-19s, in Belgium I think it was. That was three years ago so I don’t know much about him. I’ve heard a lot of good things about him as a coach, so hopefully he’ll do well.
“It’s been a bad campaign. We didn’t qualify. I think we’ve got the individual quality to qualify but there’s no point saying that now, we have to prove it. It’s not a giant step from club to under-21 internationals. It’s just different styles of play, learning how they play in different countries.
“With the red card the other night, I’ve not seen it back. Basically, the guy was through on goal, I put my arm across, the ref thought I pulled him back. I don’t think I did. It’s all part of the learning curve. We were 3-0 down so it wasn’t a big thing at the time, although I think they’re going to appeal it.”
Asked about the prospect of a senior call-up, Souttar remains coy. Scotland don’t have a long line of emerging centre-backs and he is the next big prospect in that position. He isn’t expecting promotion any time soon, though.
“To be honest, I don’t think about it just now. If you think about it, that could distract you. You need to be consistently doing well to get the call-up, so I’ll concentrate on doing a job for Hearts.
“I feel like I’ve developed a lot, learned a lot, since joining Hearts. The gaffer has helped massively. The same goes for players like Igor Rossi. There is a good mentality in this team. Don Cowie, people like that, we’ve got guys with experience, good professionals. The young boys, we all look up to them and learn from them.”