Stepping out at Le Coq Arena in Tallinn, John Souttar is mindful that he could very easily be preparing for Arbroath. His first competitive game of season 2016/17 would be a League Cup tie at Gayfield next week had he stayed at Dundee United.
Instead of steeling himself for stiff winds and concrete terracings in Angus with a Championship club, he is in Estonia’s national stadium for a vital Europa League qualifier. He admits it is a “night-and-day” comparison. If ever Souttar sought justification for leaving United for Hearts in January, this is it.
Le Coq Arena is Estonia’s most grandiose football venue, with its 10,000 capacity and top-class facilities. It plays host to the country’s national team, plus local club FC Flora Tallinn. Hearts’ European aspirations go on the line there tonight as they try to enhance, or at least preserve, a slim 2-1 first-leg advantage over FC Infonet in the Europa League first qualifying round.
Souttar knows the stakes are high. He also knows how fortunate he is to be here. It is easy to forget he doesn’t turn 20 until September. It could all be so different had he not pushed for a £120,000 switch to Tynecastle just a few months ago.
“It is night and day. Hearts is a good club to be at right now,” he told the Evening News. “It’s a development club, it’s getting bigger, the training ground is going to get better and the facilities are improving. There’s a new gym and individual training plans. I think everyone is going to progress here and I think this club is only going one way.
“It’s not just that [the thought of playing at Arbroath instead of in Europe]. The atmosphere about the place is a lot better. As a young player, I think this is a good place to develop.”
Hearts were strongly placed for Europa League qualification when they pursued Souttar during the winter transfer window. Perhaps surprisingly, that wasn’t a factor in the teenager’s desire to leave his formative club.
“I didn’t even think about European football. I just thought: ‘Where do I need to go to progress?’ I wasn’t at a standstill but I was going two ways in my career.
“If I stayed at United, you don’t know what could’ve happened. Now I’m at Hearts, I feel I’ve progressed a lot.
“In this last six months, I’ve developed a lot physically and I’ve mentally grown up as well. It’s been a good test moving away and I’m feeling good for it. The timing of the move was perfect and this was definitely the right place for me to go. It’s been a real eye-opener.
“United were sort of heading downwards for a year or so. They sold good players and it wasn’t a good atmosphere about the place. I came here, everyone’s flying and there’s a good atmosphere and a real will to win. It’s a good place to be.”
Tallinn is a good place to be so far. Whether this trip is recalled with fondness in the future depends on this evening’s outcome. In a walled city, Hearts need their own blockade to stand firm. Souttar and his defensive colleagues must be impregnable.
“You’re going to get pressure. If you can’t handle pressure, then you’re in trouble as a footballer,” he said. “There will always be people doubting you and wanting you to fail. You need to take that and use it. We could be playing a normal friendly tonight and there would be no pressure on us. You’ve got to want pressure.
“Pressure brings success and I think that’s a big thing. If we handle the pressure, we know we’re going to get success. We’re more than confident we have enough as a group to go through if we play well.”
Nonetheless. this is a step into the unknown for a squad with more than a dozen players who have never played away from home in European competition.
“It is, totally. It’s good, though. You’re going to have that as a footballer and hopefully I’ll have more ties like this to come,” said Souttar.
“The media team and backroom staff here do a lot of working sourcing games. It’s not like before when you couldn’t get footage of anyone. We’ve seen quite a lot of footage of Infonet and we’ve played them as well. We have a fair idea of what they’re like.”
Souttar also sought the opinion of a former team-mate, United’s Estonian forward Henri Anier.
“I saw Henri after the bounce game we played against Aberdeen in St Andrews. He didn’t really know much about Infonet, to be honest, because he’s been over here for so long, but he said: ‘I think, if you play at your best, you will win.’ I think we believe that as well.”
The first leg proved it is no straightforward task. Infonet are 17 games into the Estonian league season. They showcased pace, strength, experience and a dangerous counter-attacking style in Edinburgh.
“We’re in Europe at the end of the day, so I don’t think you’re going to come up against a bad team. We knew they were in the middle of their season so they were going to be sharper. As a group, I think we’ve got more quality than them but it was our first 90 minutes, so there’s going to be rustiness.
“We’ve now had another week to work on sharpness and that’s a big thing. You can do as much running and training as you want but match fitness is a lot different. It wasn’t the best performance from us at home but a win’s a win.
“I’m confident we’ll get a good result over here to see us into the second round.”
If Souttar can stifle the wily and imposing Estonian forward Vladimir Voskoboinikov, it would be a major help.
“He’s a handful, a clever player and it’s good to play against guys like that. Me being more physical, doing a lot of work with John Hill [Hearts sports scientist] has helped massively. I’m able to cope better with strikers like that. At United, I don’t think I was coping. I’d be getting flung about.
“I’m still young as a centre-half and I’ve got a lot of the dirty side of the game to learn. That’s only going to get better. Being here has helped me a lot already in dealing with strikers like that.
“Whoever plays in the back four has a job to keep a clean sheet tonight. Hopefully, we can score because an away goal would be massive. We’re going through as it stands so a 0-0 draw would do us. I think everyone would be happy if we did that.”
If Hearts progress, they will go from Tallinn to Malta in the next round. Souttar is eager to continue this European odyssey, knowing just how insipid the alternative could be.