Craig Levein: John Souttar is Scotland’s most improved defender

23/08/18 ' HEARTS TRAINING ' ORIAM - EDINBURGH ' Hearts' John Souttar
23/08/18 ' HEARTS TRAINING ' ORIAM - EDINBURGH ' Hearts' John Souttar
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John Souttar’s wait for a senior Scotland cap irks many within the corridors of Riccarton.

The Hearts manager Craig Levein points out that an Australian grandparent could see the Scottish Football Association miss out on the defender altogether if they are not careful.

Levein feels Souttar, 21, is the most improved centre-back in the country since joining Hearts from Dundee United in 2016. He was selected in McLeish’s full squad for the first time in May but withdrew due to injury, and now finds himself back in the Under-21s.

“He still might be selected for the seniors, but you do know he’s got an Australian grandparent?” Levein chooses his words carefully given national coach Alex McLeish names his squad to face Belgium and Albania next week, but the message is clear. “I’m just pointing something out,” he continues.

Souttar will captain Hearts until Christophe Berra returns from a torn hamstring next year. He could find himself with a new central defensive partner tomorrow at Kilmarnock after Levein signed 20-year-old Jimmy Dunne on loan from Burnley. His club form is exemplary but his international career has yet to begin, much to Hearts’ frustration.

“He [Souttar] is arguably the most improved player in Scotland over the last couple of years,” says Levein. “He’s our captain, with Christophe out injured, and he’s improved beyond all recognition from what he was on arrival here.

“Last year he was excellent and he’s even better this year. He’s worked so hard in the summer. I’m not going to tell anybody who they should pick to play in the national team. I know what that’s like. But I’m pointing something out here and I’m being deadly serious. It’s up to Alex.”

Levein spent three years as Scotland manager and feels he could have used a player with Souttar’s ability. “I don’t think I had a player of the quality of John Souttar who wasn’t getting picked at the time,” he says.

Souttar’s quest for improvement leads to him asking senior colleagues for advice daily. Steven Naismith recently named him the hungriest youngster he has worked with, whilst Berra, Aaron Hughes and Don Cowie have also been an influence.

“That’s a hell of compliment from Naismith but it’s true. John is just eager to get better,” says Levein. “From the minute he came in the door, he has improved so much and that’s all down to his attitude.

“He’s not one of these boys who will learn something and put his feet up. Or get something and put his feet up. He just wants to get better all the time. You would see him talking to Aaron, to Christophe, to Naisy, to Don Cowie all the time about what he should do to become a better pro. That’s the advantage of having these guys – although Don is away now – in the building.

“I think he’s just growing up as well. Physically as much as anything,” says Levein. “I said this when he was getting stick while playing for Dundee United. I signed for Hearts at 19 and didn’t win a header for two years. That’s true.

“It’s the physicality of stepping up to the top league, playing against strikers who are bigger, stronger and know how to use their body. I think centre-backs don’t get to that point until they’re into their early to mid-20s.

‘So I understand exactly where John Souttar was, in his career, before he came here. He was getting judged on things that he shouldn’t have been getting judged on, which is physicality.

‘He’s a different animal now. And you can judge him on the physical contest with the strikers he’s facing, because he’s now fully developed.

‘That, for me, is one thing in Scotland: We’re in a rush to criticise young players when they aren’t fully developed.”

Souttar’s calming influence will be needed as Hearts head to Ayrshire unbeaten in seven competitive games so far this season. “He’s a calm boy. He’s very, very ambitious, and he’s doing all the right things, right now,” adds Levein.

“He had a long time out with an Achilles injury, remember. That was obviously a fairly difficult situation to deal with at 20 or whatever he was. Everyone thinks he’s 24 or 25. He’s been around that long, but he’s still eligible for the Under-21s.”

Aaron Hughes is out with a calf strain and, combined with Berra’s absence, Levein has a small dilemma at centre-back. He must decide whether to throw in Dunne for his debut or move Peter Haring from midfield to defence.

Dunne’s loan spell at Accrington Stanley last season proved his winner’s appetite as the Lancashire club achieved promotion to England’s League One.

“He’s a young, hungry, talented and ambitious boy. He was at kid at Man United so has a good background, good pedigree,” explains Levein.

“He left there and went to another Premier League club, Burnley. He has been involved in the first team but also had two loan periods, one at Barrow, one at Accrington. Both were very successful.

“He helped Accrington win the league and I like him. He’s also just been put on a new contract, so Burnley value him. I feel good about that deal. I still need another one [defender], because Aaron is out with a calf strain. Then there will be another – a striker – and possibly one more.”

Clearly, Levein’s summer recruitment drive is far from over. However, it is doubtful if he could find another defender in the same mould as Souttar within Hearts’ wage bracket. That Scotland cap will surely come sooner rather than later.