John Souttar: Could Rangers return to a tried and trusted strategy to tempt Hearts into selling?
Rangers left no stone unturned in the 2020/21 season as they desperately attempted to take back the league title and stop Celtic winning a record ten-in-a-row.
In the end, cognitive strategy wasn't necessary to better a Celtic team that made one ludicrous, and often hilarious, decision after the other. But there was one experiment which proved successful and something they may again turn to in order to try and fight off the challenge from their near neighbours, who dominated in the recent victory over Hibs to cut the gap at the top of the table to just four points.
Throughout the course of the campaign, the Ibrox side loaned out four players to Scottish Premiership rivals. Two of those, Glenn Middleton and Jake Hastie, were viewed as short-term solutions to get youngsters more playing time. The other two, Ross McCrorie and Jamie Murphy were first-teamers Steven Gerrard no longer had use for and was willing to let leave permanently – but not immediately.
Within the space of 11 days, two deals were struck which would see McCrorie join Aberdeen on an initial loan deal that turned permanent at the end of the season and Murphy go to Hibs on the same arrangement. Both clubs had been keen on securing outright contractual ownership of the players straight away, but Rangers wanted to keep them as potential weapons in the title race, even if they wouldn't feature in a light blue shirt.
The thinking was simple: Hibs and Aberdeen were stronger as a result of having these players and, therefore, when they came up against Celtic they'd be a tougher proposition. Indeed, both clubs would take four points off the reigning champions over the course of the campaign, two of which came at a crucial point in the autumn when Neil Lennon's side were beginning their stumble (Murphy even scored in a 2-2 draw at Easter Road).
By the same token, these same teams would also be weakened, and thrown off their equilibrium, when they faced Rangers.
The strategy worked, even if it wasn't entirely require due to Celtic's collapse. This season, however, is a different story. Despite some injury struggles, they've remained competitive at the top of the table and, in Ange Postecoglou, have a manager who knows what he is doing and appears capable of leading them to a title upset in his first campaign in charge.
Enter John Souttar. The Hearts centre-back and Scottish international has already signed a pre-contract with the Ibrox club, a decision which has enraged his own supporters to the point of mercilessly booing him throughout the recent 2-0 win over St Johnstone at Tynecastle.
This author has already written about how Hearts should definitely not sell Souttar to Rangers in the January window. His performance against the Saints, in spite of the booing and his uncertain short-term future, showed he's still fully focused and committed to the cause of getting Hearts back into Europe. He's one of the best centre-backs in the country and the £500,000 fee is pittance in comparison to what the club will earn if they make it into the group stages of a European competition next term, a scenario which is likely if they finish third.
But things change.
After just one round of fixtures following the winter break, Hearts have extended their lead to eight points over Motherwell and ten over Hibs. Motherwell themselves already look like a busted flush having sold Tony Watt to Dundee United following his own controversial pre-contract decision. Hibs, on the other hand, looked a viable threat coming out of the hiatus, but have been far from convincing in either of their first two games of 2022 and have just sold their best player in Martin Boyle.
Souttar is terrific, but is he so good that his departure would be worth minus-10 points between now and the end of the season? With dependable deputies like Michael Smith and Taylor Moore, that hardly feels plausible.
After a convenient ankle injury ruled him out of the Auchinleck Talbot clash, which means he won't be cup-tied should he move to Glasgow this window, it seems increasingly likely Souttar will depart in the coming days.
The cash required should be like spare change to a club of Rangers' size, even with their financial issues. Especially if they're looking to speculate to accumulate with first place guaranteeing Champions League football next term, providing this year's competition isn't won by a team who don't qualify through their league (e.g. Chelsea in 2012). Though they might wish to through in a couple of sweeteners, a couple of covert agents, if you will, to make sure they get their man and heighten their chances.
Leon Balogun's contract expires at the end of the season and Souttar's arrival would likely spell the end of his career in Glasgow. He's similar to Souttar in many respects, a centre-back who can be trusted with the football. His long-range passing isn't as good, nor is he as strong a defender, but he's quicker and more experienced.
An attacker thrown into the deal wouldn't go amiss either, though the options are limited. There's nothing in the Cedric Itten rumour, namely because he wouldn't be eligible to play for another club this season having already turned out for Rangers and Greuther Furth. Brandon Barker is, astonishingly, still a Rangers player, but Hearts have plenty of attacking-midfield options and his lack of football would mean it'd take a couple of months for him to get up to speed.
Regardless if Hearts are interested in such a deal, the club are in a strong negotiating position and should be looking to drive as hard a bargain as possible. Five-hundred thousand doesn’t feel like much unless there’s a generous sell-on clause attached. Rangers are desperate to win this title. Let's see that desperation used against them.