The sight of John Souttar at the centre of Scotland’s defence in between playing a captain’s role in a table-topping Hearts side has filled Craig Levein with pride.
As both manager and director of football at Dundee United when the defender was in his fledgling days within the Tannadice club’s youth ranks, Levein has tracked Souttar’s career from the outset and has always backed the him to grow into one of the country’s most pre-eminent centre-backs. Despite his own unflinching belief in Souttar’s ability, however, Levein had reason to fear that this young talent may be snuffed out a few years ago by what he deemed mismanagement on the part of his former club, as they played him out of position in a team which was nosediving towards the Championship after being shorn of its best players.
Souttar, despite still being a teenager, became a scapegoat for the team’s struggles as he lost his way following a promising start to his United career after being given his debut by Peter Houston as a 16-year-old. Many had written him off as too soft to be a centre-back in Scotland, as his prospects of fulfilling his early potential appeared to be dwindling. Levein, then director of football at Hearts, and Robbie Neilson, the head coach, rode to the rescue when they brought him to Tynecastle as a 19-year-old in January 2016. In the intervening two-and-a-half years, he has been transformed from a confidence-shorn kid who had lost his way into a dominant, ball-playing international centre-back, now with two full caps to his name after starting the recent matches against Belgium and Albania at Hampden. Levein admits he feels like a proud parent.
“I’m thrilled for John and his family,” said Levein. “I’ve known John since he was about 12 years old at Dundee United. His dad sent me a picture of me coaching John at Dundee United with the caption ‘where have the years gone?’ I was thinking that myself. Because of my close relationship with John and how well I get on with his mum and dad then I might not be as proud as they are but I’m quite a bit down that road. The way his career developed and had gone off the rails a little bit, people had pigeon-holed him. That’s what we do in Scottish football. People said he wasn’t tough enough to be a centre-half.”
Levein is adamant that Souttar was always destined to be a centre-back and that United shouldn’t have tried using him in different positions. “He has always been a centre-half,” said Levein. “I’m not being disrespectful but they nearly ruined his career. Right back, left back, centre midfield. It’s quite confusing for a young player when you are being moved into three of four different places and no-one has got your back and is giving you the support you need.
“I’m talking disparagingly but United sold all their best players and he was left behind and he became an easy target. It says everything about him that he has taken himself from that position where people thought he was one thing to moving up to someone who I think will be a mainstay for the Scotland national team for a long time.”
Levein believes that Souttar’s natural physical development has been a key factor in his emergence as a main man at both club and international level. Wearing the captain’s armband in the absence of influential skipper Christophe Berra, the 21-year-old has looked in his element as the linchpin of the defence over the past five weeks. “A lot of people in Scottish football formed an opinion of John Souttar three years ago and that came from Dundee United,” said Levein.
“I think it dogged him for two or three years and it has taken him three years of playing regular football, obviously he was out injured for a while, to prove he can gain the strength and aggression required to play at the highest level. I have said previously playing as a young centre-back in the league is a difficult thing to do. John playing at 16, 17 at Dundee United was exceptional. I came to Hearts from Cowdenbeath at 19 and couldn’t win a header for two years because of the quality and the strength of the senior players I was up against. So, for me, with John it was just about patience until he physically developed.
“I mean, he got booked against Albania for as clean a header as you will ever see. It was a terrible decision. Interestingly, when you get to international football, the aggression and physicality comes back down a level compared to the game here at club level.
“Here we play teams who throw the ball in on top of our centre-backs from the first minute to the last minute. That doesn’t happen in international football, it’s more about what is going on in your head and understanding that it’s a different type of football. But my point is things people said John can’t do, he is doing them every week now. And one of the biggest compliments I can pay him is you wouldn’t know our captain and possibly our best player isn’t playing.”
Levein, a former Scotland manager, is excited by the prospect of Souttar linking up with 21-year-old Aberdeen centre-back Scott McKenna for the national team in the coming years. “If John and McKenna could form a partnership in four years’ time we could have a really exciting central defensive pairing,” he said. “Once you get to 25 as a centre-back then it becomes easier for you. But it’s a good position to be in. I don’t know McKenna as well as I know John but he looks to be a top, top player. It’s good news.”