After somewhat surprisingly missing out on a maiden call-up to the Scotland senior squad last week, John Souttar set about showing what he could bring to the national team during Hearts’ 3-0 win over Partick Thistle at the weekend.
Another composed defensive performance and clean sheet was even topped off with a first ever goal in maroon for the 21-year-old. He got on the end of Michael Smith’s long throw to put Hearts three goals to the good with a sliding half-volley just before half-time.
He’ll now join up with Scot Gemmill’s Under-21 squad as they fly to Andorra for a UEFA Euro qualifier on Friday. Given his displays at the heart of Craig Levein’s defence this season, many assumed he’d be included in Alex McLeish’s first squad since becoming Scotland boss for a second time.
It wasn’t to be, with Under-21 team-mate Scott McKenna getting the nod alongside the more experienced Charlie Mulgrew and Russell Martin. Even Martin’s withdrawal on Sunday evening through injury didn’t provide an opportunity for Souttar, with Celtic’s Jack Hendry called up as a replacement.
After club captain Christophe Berra was also left out, Souttar is in good company, and Berra’s philosophical reaction is mirrored by his young defensive partner. While the former Dundee United man believes he is ready to take the next step internationally, he knows he has time on his side.
“I’ve said before, if it happened, it happened and I felt that was the closest I’ve been to being ready,” he told the Evening News. “I’ve been touted before and I didn’t feel like I was ready, but this time I felt physically and mentally I was certainly ready.
“This season has been the most comfortable I’ve felt and I’d probably say it’s been my strongest season in terms of performance. I’m getting older and physically stronger all the time. I’m still young for a centre-half though so I’m always learning. It’s a great place to play and learn too, next to Christophe, Aaron [Hughes] and under the gaffer.”
Returning so impressively after a serious injury last term has also given him a sense of perspective. “I sometimes forget it’s only just over a year ago that I ruptured my Achilles,” he admitted. “Usually it takes people longer to recover which would mean they’d just be coming back now, but I’ve had all this season under my belt.
“Sometimes I just need to look back and think where I was last year. If you’d told me I’d have played 25-30 games at this stage of the season the I would’ve laughed, so it’s credit to everyone involved in bringing me back. It’s amazing and gives some perspective for me as well.
“I’ll go away with the 21s now and hopefully we can get the win in Andorra. Every championship game is big. We’ll go across and have a good meet up with a good bunch of boys and hopefully get the win.”
Gemmill will no doubt be delighted to still have Souttar available to him with McKenna on senior duty, allowing him to utilise at least half of his preferred central defensive partnership. Although the more experienced of the pair in terms of domestic action, Souttar, knows McKenna’s attributes better than most and is fully behind McLeish’s decision to include the player.
“Scott and I have played together through the age groups and I’m delighted for him,” he said. “He’s had a tough spell where he’s not been in the team but the last six to eight months he’s done very well in a good Aberdeen side so fingers crossed for him and big Jon McLaughlin that they’re involved on Friday.”
McLaughlin’s first international involvement was one of the least surprising choices made by McLeish. With Craig Gordon injured, the Hearts number one was the standout choice to take over the gloves.
Souttar and Berra have done their own jobs of preventing McLaughlin being overly busy behind them, and Souttar isn’t the only one confused as to why Berra missed out.
However, the former Burton Albion keeper is in after showing why he’s a man in demand south of the border, with 14 clean sheets to his name in all competitions.
“He’s brilliant and has been unbelievable for us all season,” raved Souttar. “He’s a top keeper and a top guy as well. Christophe not getting called up was harsh, but it’s one of those things. I think he could do with the rest – he’s getting old, isn’t he? He can rest that old body of his!
“He’s been a stalwart all season though and I think everyone knows what he’s capable of. For me he’s the best defender in Scotland. I’m sure the rest will serve him well but I think the nation could’ve done with him at the back. As for Jon, I’m sure he’s going to go there and impress a lot of people.”
Domestically, Hearts managed to end a run of five games without a win that included an Edinburgh derby defeat. They are favourites to claim the final top-six berth ahead of Motherwell, and while Souttar admits the club should be aiming higher, they need to make sure they achieve that as a bare minimum.
“It’s not what we aim for at the start of the season but it’s our aim now,” he accepted. “Like it or not, we’ve got to be in the top six. Motherwell are still a threat but we did the job on Saturday to keep that gap.
“Sometimes you can doubt yourselves in positions like we’re in, especially when you’ve been knocked out the cup and lost to your local rivals. We’d had a lot of critics after the previous two games and rightly so, so it was a pleasing performance for everyone.
“It’s a good way for everyone to go off on international duty too. If you go away after getting beat it’s a long two weeks until the next game.”