When John Souttar crumpled to the Celtic Park turf with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon at the end of January, he was staring at the very real prospect of being sidelined until October.
Remarkably, with a week of September remaining, the Hearts defender has already started seven of his team’s ten competitive games this season, including each of the last five Premiership fixtures. In addition, since making a rapid recovery from this most wretched injury, he has helped Scotland Under-21s to a magnificent victory over the Netherlands. Within these eight outings for club and country, there have been five clean sheets. The 20-year-old has found light at the end of the dark and demoralising journey he was forced to embark upon in the early part of 2017.
“I could have easily still been out right now, so the fact I’ve played so many games, been away with Scotland Under-21s, and kept a few clean sheets is a massive bonus,” Souttar told the Evening News ahead of tomorrow’s trip to Partick Thistle. “The injury feels like it’s all gone – it just feels like a normal Achilles now, which is brilliant. When you get back from an injury like that it makes you appreciate massively just being able to play again. To look back to where I was six months ago, you have doubts about how you’re going to come back and people doubt if you’ll be the same player if you do get back, which is natural because it’s probably one of the worst injuries you can get. For me to be back and feel like I did before it happened is brilliant. I always believed I would recover but I’ve surprised myself with how quickly I’ve got back.
“I’ve never had any doubts about going in for any challenges. People sometimes get put off by things when they’ve had a bad injury but I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve not had that. I’m still probably getting back to my full fitness but I’ve been out for a long time so that’s to be expected.”
Having returned to action in July, less than six months after sustaining an injury which normally carries a prognosis of six-to-nine months on the sidelines, Souttar was reminded of the soul-destroying effect of a ruptured Achilles when he learned that Jordon Forster had become a victim while playing for Cheltenham Town against Exeter City four weeks ago. The former Hibs defender told the Evening News earlier this month of the support he had received from Souttar. The Hearts player felt obliged to contact his stricken fellow centre-back even though they barely knew each other.
“A few of the boys mentioned to me what had happened to Jordon,” Souttar explained. “When I did my Achilles, it was a lonely time – you Google to see who else has done it to try and get some reassurance. I just wanted to let him know I was there if he had any questions about it because I’ve been through what he’s going through now. I just thought anything that could help put his mind at ease would be worth doing. I’ve played against him a few times, and he’s from Edinburgh, but if it was anyone I knew I’d have got in touch because it’s a traumatic injury and it’s tough to deal with mentally. I know how hard is to get through it, and when you’re sitting there in the first two weeks and you can’t move, it’s a dangerous time. Your Googling all sorts of things, so for someone just to say ‘look, I’m back and you can get through it’, I think that would help, so hopefully it helped Jordon.”
In addition to offering advice in recent weeks, Souttar has also been benefitting from the experience of others. The defender, who turns 21 on Monday, feels his return to the team has been smoothed by playing alongside Christophe Berra and Aaron Hughes, two international centre-backs who are 12 and 18 years his senior, respectively. “They’re both experienced professionals who I can learn from, and that’s what I’m doing,” said Souttar. “When there’s players like that next to you, you’ve just got to take advantage of it and ask them questions. I’m still young for a centre-half, so anything I can pick up off them is valuable.
“To have someone like Christophe, who’s a first pick for Scotland, is always going to make things easier for you. I’ve always wanted to play as high as I possibly can in the game, and Christophe and Aaron show what’s required to play regularly for your national team. When you’re younger, I think the hardest thing is to find consistency and do it week in, week out, but I think together, as a defence, we’ve started the season pretty consistently. The clean sheets and the away wins we’ve had suggest we’re more solid than we were last season because you need to be defensively solid to get results away from home. It’s been a good start considering we’ve played so many games away.”