John Souttar left Tynecastle Park on Wednesday evening with bittersweet emotions. The joy of playing competitive football for the first time since hip surgery three months ago was tainted by a home defeat against Dundee which left an unpleasant aftertaste.
The Scotland centre-back felt hugely relieved being back on the field after spending winter rehabilitating from injury. While team-mates were enjoying a training camp in southern Spain, he was sitting on an exercise bike being “battered” by physios, as he puts it.
The end result was a return to action in midweek. Souttar replaced Callumn Morrison for the final 33 minutes of the 2-1 defeat to play for the first time since Scotland’s Nations League tie in Israel back on October 11.
Losing to Dundee – bottom of the Premiership with only one away win at kick-off – wasn’t the comeback he envisaged. The former Dundee United defender explained the conflicting feelings he endured in an exclusive Evening News interview.
“It’s been a long wait. I’ve been dying to get back out there and I’ve been working hard towards it. It obviously wasn’t the best game to come on to but it is what it is. Hopefully I’ll just be ready for Saturday,” he said.
“It was really tough watching when all of us were out injured at the one time. It was hard to see what happened to the team but we can’t accept a result like Wednesday’s at home. We have to be winning those games.
“It was good to be back but tough to take. It felt bittersweet. In the bigger picture, it’s brilliant for me to be back as that’s what I’ve been aiming for, but we have to make it right tomorrow now.”
Souttar accepts that manager Craig Levein was correct to leave him on the bench, although he will be pushing for a starting place against St Johnstone this weekend. The hip is feeling no ill-effects, thankfully.
“It was probably the right decision to leave me on the bench. I had only trained two or three proper sessions. It’s good to just get back into the feel of things, get used to the crowd at Tynecastle and stuff like that,” he said.
“If I was called upon I would definitely start. My hip felt fine in the game. It was tested quite a bit because the match was very open towards the end. It felt good so that’s great from my point of view.
“The legs were tested as well. Because it was so open it was tough to come on in a game like that. Especially since we went to a back three when I came on. You are playing as a full-back a lot of the time.
“It’s just brilliant to be back out on a football pitch, not in great circumstances, but for me it was a good feeling playing again.”
He detailed some of the punishing work undertaken to ready himself to re-enter the Ladbrokes Premiership in the biting January cold. “I’m not 100 per cent because I’ve only trained a few times, so I’m going to work my way back into it.
“I did a lot of work when I was out injured. Craig Maitland and Mikey Williams – the sports scientist and the physio – were just battering me this time round. That makes you more game-ready.
“I was given some really hard sessions on the bike and some tough running sessions. It’s difficult when the boys are in Spain and you’re doing it on your own.
“When I went on against Dundee I felt I got up to the pace of the game quite quickly. It was good in that sense, that you work hard and then find it easier when you do get back playing. It’s worth it when you come back.
“Hopefully it’s worth it on Saturday because it doesn’t feel worth it yet after that defeat on Wednesday night.”
Souttar may need to work harder to regain his starting place and keep it, with Levein having strengthened his defence considerably. Conor Shaughnessy replaces Jimmy Dunne on loan, plus Clevid Dikamona is also competing for game time alongisde captain Christophe Berra.
“We will all be training hard and hoping to play. It’s healthy to have that competition,” said Souttar.
Another game so quickly after the midweek loss offers the chance of some redemption. Yet St Johnstone are possibly the one team no-one wants to face at the present moment. Their 1-0 home victory over Livingston on Wednesday propelled them above Hearts in the league, and they arrive in Edinburgh powered by a sequence of ten wins in 14 games.
Just to underline the Perth side’s capabilities, their previous four fixtures have been won without conceding a goal. They are one of the Premiership’s form teams. “We have to put Wednesday behind us and move on,” stressed Souttar. “Tomorrow is a massive one now against St Johnstone. They won again on Wednesday so it’s a big one for us. They are a good side so we have to be at the races. We weren’t on Wednesday but we have to be tomorrow.
“It’s important at Tynecastle that we start well and take the game to the opponents. When we don’t do that, we’re an average team. When we take the game to the other team and we’re on the front foot, then we can dominate them and give anyone a game.
“The start always sets the tone at Tynecastle. Even when I was a United player coming here, that was the key to the whole thing. You say: ‘Don’t let them start well.’ We know that as a team. We have to start well against St Johnstone.”