BEING touted for the full Scotland squad in your teens would flatter any footballer. John Souttar is no different.
Nonetheless, the Hearts defender openly admits he isn’t yet ready for senior international football. He insists his place is firmly in Scot Gemmill’s Scotland Under-21 side.
Talk of Souttar earning promotion to Gordon Strachan’s full squad has gained volume since the player moved to Tynecastle from Dundee United in February. He only turned 20 in September but is already seen by many as a candidate for the national team.
He has fuelled such speculation with remarkable consistency in a maroon shirt, underlined by the fact he is a domestic ever-present for Hearts so far this season. The increasing clamour for him to receive a full cap is also born from the fact Scotland lack top quality international centre-backs.
Regardless of the chatter, the social media posts and the media talk, Souttar is content to be with the Under-21s in Slovakia this week. He was reinstated to the squad after being left out last month for Gemmill’s maiden match in charge. He insists this is exactly where he should be at his age.
“I don’t think for a second I should be up there in the full squad. I’m more than happy being in the Under-21s and I haven’t even given it a second thought,” he told the Evening News. “It’s nice to hear people talking about it but, from my point of view, I’m a Scotland Under-21 player and I want us to qualify for the next tournament.
“I just want to go and play against Slovakia, play well for the Under-21s and keep performing to the standards I want. I honestly haven’t even given it a thought. I’ve just been playing for Hearts and the gaffer always says not to think about anything other than playing well on a Saturday. Then things will come.”
It is refreshing to hear a young player speak of gradual progress rather than the rapid ascent which often precedes a lull later. Gemmill left Souttar out as he served a suspension last time but reassured him he would be back for this friendly in Myjava tomorrow.
“Yeah, he phoned me up when the squad was announced. He just said: ‘You’re suspended for one of these games but you’ll be in the next squad. I just want to see what some of the other boys are like.’
“I think he gave a lot of boys their debuts but he assured me I was part of his plans, which was good.”
He joined the group as one of the senior players, with Gemmill now blooding many of the under-17s he coached last year. “It feels a bit weird. I’m just at the age of 20 and I feel as if I’m still young myself. To hear that ‘experience’ word is a bit strange. I’m only experienced in an under-21 context,” he smiled.
“I’ve spoken to Scot a few times so I think it’s going to be good. I’m just looking forward to playing against Slovakia. We want to try and get a good result and a bit of momentum going towards the next campaign.”
The experience gained with Hearts this season should help the centre-back lead from the front amongst the new-look under-21 squad. He has established himself as a first-choice at Tynecastle, relegating former club captain Alim Ozturk to the substitutes’ bench.
“They’ve put a lot of trust in me at Hearts. I’ve played every league game this season and experienced a lot of different types of game. I feel I’ve improved. Take Saturday’s game against St Johnstone. Last year or the year before, I don’t think I’d have handled that [physical] side of my game. I’ve still got a lot of improving to do to get to where I want to be.”
As do his club colleagues. Saturday’s 2-2 draw means Hearts have taken just two points from a possible nine in their last three matches against Kilmarnock, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and St Johnstone.
“I think everyone is going to go through periods like this in the league. It’s about staying positive,” stressed Souttar. “Games like these aren’t easy. Yeah, I think we should have got more points on Saturday but we can’t do anything about it now. We just need to go into the next game at Hamilton, which will be just as tough. We have to go there and get three points.”
Souttar felt the uneven Tynecastle surface didn’t help matters as the cold winter begins to take hold in Gorgie. “The pitch wasn’t the best. I thought it was a poor game but sometimes you need to mix it with the opposition, don’t you? You need to play the way they play with long balls and stuff. It’s not the way we want to play but sometimes you have to do it in game like that. The whole game wasn’t great.
“I thought we did well to get one-nil up but then St Johnstone’s first goal was a killer just before half-time. The second goal went in, we thought it was offside, so it wasn’t great. Thankfully, we got the equaliser.
“I thought we handled Danny Swanson well in the first half and we limited them to very few chances. If we’d got a second goal it would’ve given us that cushion. I didn’t think St Johnstone created much before they scored but one ball through and it’s a goal. That was tough.
“At the start of the season, we lost away at St Johnstone and I think we got outbattled up there. We competed better on Saturday, we won headers and we battled. That’s what you need to do against St Johnstone to have a chance. Then, usually our football comes after that. On Saturday, that wasn’t the case. It was windy and the pitch didn’t help. You saw the ball bobbling up.”