Despite winning just one Scotland Under-21 cap, Hearts defender John Souttar is in line for future promotion to the full squad. National coach Gordon Strachan believes the 19-year-old has the potential to play senior international football and will watch his development closely over the coming months.
Souttar is part of Ricky Sbragia’s group for upcoming European Under-21 Championship qualifiers against France and Northern Ireland. His only Scotland Under-21 appearance so far came against Northern Ireland in Lurgan last September. He lined up in midfield that day but has excelled at centre-back since joining Hearts from Dundee United six weeks ago.
Sbragia and Strachan are excited by his progress in such a short space of time. A burgeoning partnership between Souttar and Alim Ozturk has helped the Edinburgh club record four successive clean sheets. Consequently, they are now dreaming of catching second-placed Aberdeen in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
The benefit for Scotland to have another young centre-half emerging doesn’t need explained to anyone who watches the national team. It is an area where there is a clear dearth of talent. Hearts, though, have two contenders in Souttar and Jordan McGhee. Both are still in their teens but could be paired together in central defence when Scotland Under-21s face France in Angers a week tomorrow.
Asked about youngsters earning promotion to the senior side, Sbragia stressed the pathway is there. Hibs midfielder John McGinn is the latest to step up to Strachan’s squad and the Scottish FA coaching staff want more to follow. Souttar is a leading candidate.
“John has come in and he’s had a great move to Hearts,” said Sbragia. “I watched him play against Kilmarnock a couple of weeks ago and he was exceptional. His time will come. There is more than just John. Callum Paterson has been unfortunate as he’s had an injury.
“You have to go up that level to see how they deal with it. How are they? Are they A-squad players? You may find that Under-21s is just enough for them. Gordon has that decision and what he sees for the forthcoming ties he has.
“There’s a good communication line and we’re always talking about it. I do think Gordon coming to our training sessions before we played Ukraine was really beneficial to see the player, see what he’s like character-wise. How does he deal with being away for seven days?
“He’s looked at that side of it with John and John has been exceptional for us. I do think the time is right. It is when the time is right for them and some are breaking into first teams, so maybe the first team is more important for them and there’ll be a time when they come up to the A squad.
“Jordan McGhee never played Under-19s for us, he went straight from 17s to 21s because we felt he was beyond that, and to get that experience and play at a higher level at an earlier age would be beneficial for his career.
“If you’re playing first-team football, it’s exceptional for them. We spoke a while ago about there only being X amount of players playing that week from the Under-21s. There was only a handful. So that’s a concern for us. Also, there’s now a number of players on loan and we have to be careful with them as well. Do we bring them and make them a number and deny them the 90 minutes for their clubs? So we’re looking at that as well.”
Sbragia named five Hearts players in the Scotland Under-21 squad, including winger Billy King, currently on loan to Rangers. The former Manchester United, Bolton and Sunderland coach has a specific idea of what he looks for in a prospective youth internationalist. He has found much of it at Riccarton.
Hearts’ resurgence under the tutelage of Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson is the subject of much conversation in the Hampden Park corridors. Sbragia admires the coaching programmes delivered by Neilson and his staff and believes it has had a major impact on Souttar in the few short weeks since he left Tannadice.
“I think they’ve been brilliant. I spoke to Robbie on Monday and they’ve been absolutely brilliant,” he continued. “I’ve watched them many times and I’ve watched their under-20s. They have that same philosophy and work ethic. As a team, they seem to gel really well together. They’ve brought an abundance of young players through who have been able to deal with it. They’ve deserved their call-ups.
“It’s always nice to go and see Hearts, I always love going to see them. They look after you. I get a cup of tea and have a good chat, so I do enjoy it. I watched them against Kilmarnock and they could’ve won by more that day. That was one of John’s first games for Hearts and he was different class. He has been like that for us. We saw that in Austria when we went there with Scotland Under-19s. John was fantastic. It’s a great move for him to Hearts. He’s probably looked at it and thought: ‘Maybe it’s time to move.’ You can be at a club too long.”
Provided Souttar’s recent imperious form continues, he may find himself fast-tracked into the full Scotland squad for friendlies against France and Italy at the end of the season.