John Souttar’s ascent from Dundee United reserve to Hearts captain and Scotland squad member is quite a story
Austin MacPhee, the assistant coach at Tynecastle Park, is convinced moving to Edinburgh two and a half years ago was the catalyst for the young centre-back’s growth.
Hearts paid United just £120,000 for Souttar in January 2016. Still only 21, he is now a prized asset valued at seven figures and hoping to win his first senior international cap this week. The progress is remarkable and much of it has taken place at Riccarton.
Surrounded by experienced campaigners like 33-year-old Christophe Berra, 38-year-old Aaron Hughes, 36-year-old Steven MacLean and 31-year-old Steven Naismith, Souttar has blossomed into a complete defender ready for international football. National coach Alex McLeish noted his maturity deputising for Berra, Hearts’ injured club captain, and promoted him from the Scotland Under-21s to the full squad last week.
He is expected to make his senior debut over the next few days as the national team face Belgium in a friendly and Albania in their inaugural UEFA Nations League tie. Manager Craig Levein intended Souttar to reach that level all along. As Hearts’ director of football, he brought him to the club from United and strategically placed good influences around him for guidance. It seems everything is going according to plan.
“Right now, John is captain of the team that is top of the league. Again, the role of the senior players in John’s development can’t be understated - Aaron Hughes and Christophe Berra in particular,” said MacPhee.
“I know that when Craig first broke into the Hearts team at the age of 18 or 19, having come from Cowdenbeath, he played with Sandy Jardine. He felt the impact of playing alongside such an experienced player developed him as much as any coach - because in that moment when you make a mistake or you’re about to make any decision, he corrects you based on 30-odd years of experience.
“He has that mindset and some of the players we bring to the club are for that reason. Steven MacLean for example, at the top end of the pitch, and the centre-backs we have here as well. John makes his own path but he has been helped by these guys and he stays close to them.”
Levein, MacPhee and the rest of the Hearts coaching staff will be watching closely to see how the youngster they helped nurture fares on the international stage. They have overseen his development closely at club level to the point where he could not be ignored by the Scottish Football Association.
“That’s the objective. You hope that Hearts is a big enough club that the national team staff look at it and, if you’re playing regularly for Hearts and playing well, you’re at the level to play international football,” said MacPhee, who also works as an assistant coach with Northern Ireland.
“A lot of the players here have shown that. Arnaud Djoum went and won the African Nations Cup with Cameroon on the back of Hearts. A lot of the boys who qualified for the Euros with Northern Ireland came to Hearts, and I think the Premiership is just getting stronger and stronger.”
Scottish football is enjoying a welcome bout of positivity right now and Hearts are at the forefront of it. They sit proudly top of the table, playing attractive football and scoring goals - 21 in their last seven competitive matches. Souttar assumed a more prominent role after Berra tore a hamstring against Celtic three weeks ago.
He was initially named in the Scotland Under-21 squad by coach Scot Gemmill for upcoming games against Andorra and the Netherlands. That irked Levein so much that he publicly revealed the defender was eligible to play for Australia through a relative. The manger, a former Scotland coach himself, believed firmly that his player should be part of McLeish’s senior group.
“He didn’t need to do that – John was in my thoughts,” said McLeish last week. “I sent him a friendly text back. I said I didn’t want to tell him how to pick his team but I gave him some advice!”
Souttar was named in the Scotland squad for the first time in May but withdrew from the transatlantic trip to play Peru and Mexico because of injury. McLeish explained he was considering him again this time but didn’t tell Gemmill until he made a final decision.
“Having a week to decide on the squad, I had John in mind for a wee while and I had a chat with Scot, who still had to pick his squad,” said McLeish. “I said I can’t say anything just now to Scot Gemmill and I continued to watch John over the last couple of weeks. He started the season very strong. He had a mature performance against Dunfermline and so he is in this squad.”