IT is one of many questions perplexing Hearts supporters since Paulo Sergio arrived as manager: Why exactly is John Sutton not in the team?
Fans have endured almost 300 minutes of football without a goal of late, yet Sutton remains slumped in the stand. Even Iain Brines appears more popular around Tynecastle.
Explanations for ignoring such a reputable forward are notably absent as Hearts continue their media blackout. Sutton scored 17 times for Motherwell last season and was pursued by a series of clubs in both Scotland and England when his Fir Park contract expired in June.
He chose Hearts and signed a three-year contract, but may now be questioning that decision. Sergio does not appear to like the style of the 27-year-old signed by his predecessor, Jim Jefferies, to lead the Hearts attack with Kevin Kyle injured. This is emphasised by the fact Ryan Stevenson, a midfielder to trade, is now first-choice centre-forward. Recently, Sutton’s stock has fallen so far that he hasn’t even warranted a place on the substitutes’ bench despite the lack of goals.
He is approaching the peak years of his career and needs to play, therefore a January exit – either permanently or on loan – seems inevitable. If Sergio does not concur with the general consensus that Sutton is a reliable goalscorer whose physical presence is ideally suited to the SPL, then the player is correct to look elsewhere in search of appreciation.
Craig Brown managed him at Motherwell and tried to lure him to Aberdeen in the summer. If Sutton is available come January, he will likely be first in the queue. The former Scotland manager recognises the player’s potential better than anyone. And he is not alone, for Sutton was once rated as a better prospect than the current England internationalist Peter Crouch.
“As a young player he signed for Tottenham round about the same time as Crouch. David Pleat was the manager at the time,” revealed Brown. “I was speaking to Pleaty at a game about a year ago and we got talking about Sutton because I had him at Motherwell.
“He told me that, of the two, he thought Sutton was going to be a better player than Crouch. That’s why he sent Crouch out on loan and kept Sutton at the time. He felt Sutton had more promise. They arrived at Spurs at the same time but Sutton was the one David Pleat thought would go places.”
Sutton is going nowhere at present having been pushed to the periphery of Sergio’s first-team squad. He has started just four times under the Portuguese, scoring his only two Hearts goals to date against Brown’s Aberdeen side back in August.
Andy Driver has been similarly marginalised since regaining full fitness. Both players remain professional and are determined to deal with their predicament in dignified fashion.
Sergio’s principal gripe with Sutton seems to be a perceived lack of mobility. “Sutton is a big guy without too much mobility but we have mobility in [Stephen] Elliott and Ryan [Stevenson]. If they work well, they will all have their chance to play in the team,” he told the Evening News less than a month into his tenure at Hearts.
The Portuguese correctly identified Sutton is no roadrunner, however a career goals-to-games ratio of one in just over every three competitive appearances is impressive, particularly when you consider that the striker’s former clubs would mostly be termed provincial – Carlisle United (loan), Swindon Town (loan), Raith Rovers, Millwall, Dundee (loan), St Mirren, Wycombe Wanderers and Motherwell.
Brown, pictured below, believes his former player has much to offer at the top level in Scotland. “He scored some tremendous goals for me at Motherwell and was a big player for us there,” he said. “I rate him very highly and we were interested in him when his contract was up at the end of last season. Obviously Hearts could offer a lot more money than Aberdeen, therefore he went to Tynecastle. We couldn’t compete with them.
“John’s a top-class guy, he has what you want from a striker. He’s got ability, he’s a team player and also a goalscorer. He’s a strong big boy as well as being a smashing individual. You want good characters about a football club and he comes into that category. John’s got the whole package. He is very strong and good in the air, he also defends from the front.
“Hearts have well organised teams and there is a lot of competition in the squad there. At Motherwell, we didn’t have a lot of competition. He and Jamie Murphy played up front together and did very well as a partnership. You just need to look at the amount of goals he scored at Motherwell and St Mirren to see what he’s capable of.”
Those who have played with and against Sutton depict him as an awkward and troublesome opponent. Marc McAusland, the young St Mirren defender, remembers Sutton from his time in Paisley. Speaking after helping keep Hearts at bay last Saturday, he explained the influence the forward had on him as a teenager. “I don’t know what’s happening with big John but he seems to be out of favour,” said McAusland. “He’s definitely a handful when he plays, although Hearts still have top quality players like Ryan Stevenson, David Templeton and Rudi Skacel. It’s brilliant to play against players like that but a big presence is something they are definitely lacking.
“I was only a young boy at St Mirren when John was here but big Sutts puts himself about, he’s a big strong boy. The under-19s got pushed up to train with the first team and he was hard to play against. He pins you, and you can’t get out. You learn from playing against players like that in training and reserve games.”
Glowing recommendations from former managers and colleagues, and a scoring record which is the envy of many current SPL strikers. So, why exactly is John Sutton not in the Hearts team?