Scotland’s dearth of quality centre-backs is particularly topical ahead of an Under-21 European Championship qualifier against England.
John Souttar, the Hearts defender, believes the trend could be turning with the emergence of young defensive talent.
Souttar turned 21 earlier this week and, in his final campaign with Scotland Under-21s, is something of a squad veteran. He has long been hailed as a future internationalist but is encouraged by others flourishing in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
Rangers’ 19-year-old Ross McCrorie and Aberdeen’s Scott McKenna, aged 20, join Souttar in the squad to face England at the Riverside Stadium this Friday. Celtic’s Anthony Ralston is only precluded by a knee injury.
“There seems to be a few coming through, I was thrown in very young but the people coming through now are at the age when you would normally come though. The three that have come in have done very well,” said Souttar.
“I watched Scott in the Motherwell-Aberdeen game and I thought he was really good. I’ve played with him for years for the age-groups and he’s always been a top player. I knew he would come in and do well so I’m delighted for him.
“I got in touch with him with a text after the game to say congratulations. He was delighted and hopefully he can kick on now. It can only be good for the country and the 21s squad as well.”
Scotland Under-21s beat the Netherlands 2-0 last month in the opening match of their qualifying section in Paisley. Souttar, McCrorie, McKenna and Ralston all played. “When you’ve trained and played with these guys then you know they have a chance to come through. That’s the good thing about Scotland, you’re going to get the chance if you’re good enough and it can only be good for the 21s squad. You saw the result against Holland, boys are playing week-in, week-out and that’s massive.
“I’ve only trained with Ross for a week in the last squad and he came on in centre midfield. You could see his qualities in training. Again, I’m delighted for him and hopefully he can get a chance.”
Souttar is understandably keen to temper talk of call-ups to the Scotland senior squad. He knows from experience how pressure can be easily heaped on fledgling footballers. “It’s still early days and we’re still very young. I know how hard it can be when you get brought up and you get put on a pedestal of being the next one. We’ve still got a lot of progressing and developing to do.”
He recalls playing regularly in Dundee United’s first team aged 16 after becoming the youngest ever player to make his debut for the Tannadice club. “It was hard but I was extremely young and now the boys who have been thrown in are at the age when you’d normally come through – 18, 19, 20, 21. That’s usually when you start coming through. I was lucky enough that I had a manager who played me every week. I learned a lot during that period.
“I’ve now played over 100 SPL games, I was told the other day. It doesn’t feel like that at all but it is brilliant for me that I’ve had managers who believed in me and trusted me. Hopefully that will continue and I will keep my development going.”
Being hailed as the future of Scotland’s defence is a fair burden for any teenager. “I think only my mum has ever said that to me,” laughed Souttar. “I know how the boys who being talked up will be feeling and it can be tough sometimes.
“They have come in and done well and I think everyone has to get behind them and support them. They will make mistakes but it is important that we stay steady. They have come in and done brilliantly so everyone has to be delighted.”
Praise can quickly degenerate into criticism in the fickle world of football. Souttar insists fans’ abuse has only strengthened his character over the years.
“I think it’s a good thing for me. They should get on my back because I have played a lot of games and I have high standards, so if I do have an off day it’s not just them, I’m frustrated as well. I’ve been slaughtered a few times but I don’t think it has ever affected my game. It’s part and parcel of football. I have thick skin.
“When you are younger and you play so many games there are always going to be difficult days or times when you make mistakes in games but that does help you mentally. I have been through stuff like that and it can only help me in the future.”
As for the present, Souttar faces Dundee with Hearts today before an international double header as Scot Gemmill’s Scotland Under-21s face England in Middlesbrough and Latvia in Liepaja.
“We started brilliantly with the Holland result and that has taken the pressure off us. We can relax and enjoy playing and we will go there [England] with no fear. It is a good Under-21 squad. There are good players in there and there is no reason for us to go there with any fear. Scot will have a gameplan and I think it will be a good game.”