Alex McLeish left East End Park on Saturday after watching another exemplary defensive display by Hearts’ John Souttar.
There have been plenty of those for the Scotland manager to note in recent months, although there was some surprise when Souttar was named in the latest Under-21 squad. He must wait to learn if he is to be promoted in the coming days.
McLeish admitted last week that the 21-year-old is “on the radar” and his early-season club performances suggest he is ready to become a full internationalist. He has represented his country at under-17 and under-19 level, captained Scotland Under-21s, and was only denied a first senior cap by injury at the end of last season. McLeish named Souttar in his squad for the trip to Peru and Mexico but agreed to let him recuperate after a call from the player.
Despite his relative youth, Souttar is also acting captain at Tynecastle Park with Christophe Berra out until next year. The national coach travelled to Dunfermline and saw him lead Hearts with maturity through a potentially hazardous Betfred Cup tie – keeping a clean sheet in the process. After an imperious showing against Celtic seven days previously, the former Dundee United youth is becoming a hard man to ignore.
McLeish’s appetite to nurture young centre-backs at international level should work in Souttar’s favour soon. Celtic’s Jack Hendry and Aberdeen’s Scott McKenna made their Scotland debuts this year and their Hearts counterpart is next in line for promotion. For now, he must be patient.
“I think he is ready. He’s been a standout for us for a good year,” said Hearts’ official ambassador, Gary Locke. “He is consistently playing very well. It would be great for the club and Soapy if he was to get the call-up. Obviously, that’s up to Alex McLeish. I would certainly never tell anyone who to pick but he must be in the running. He’s been fantastic for Hearts.
“Alex was at our game at the weekend and I’m pretty sure he would have come away really impressed. Over the last couple of seasons, John has come on leaps and bounds. He has improved in every aspect of his game. Working with Craig Levein [Hearts manager] will help him as well because Craig was a top defender himself.
“It’s disappointing that we’ve lost Christophe because he has been a rock for us. Big Soapy is bringing his game to a different level and I hope he gets the call-up I think he deserves.”
Locke was appointed Hearts captain himself at the age of 20. During his spell as manager five years ago, he gave the armband to 21-year-old Danny Wilson after the club entered administration. “Yes, Danny was captain as a young lad, although he was probably the oldest guy in the team at the time. The squad was down to the bare bones and it was a really young side. Soapy is captain just now because of his qualities in the dressing room and his influence on the pitch.”
There is no shortage of experienced international figures in the Hearts dressing room for Souttar to glean knowledge from. Berra aside, Aaron Hughes, Steven Naismith and Kyle Lafferty have been regulars for their countries, with Oliver Bozanic and Michael Smith also holding senior caps.
“Soapy has said that himself. There are a lot of characters in the dressing room and we do have a bit of experience now,” said Locke. “The squad now compared to this stage last season is better equipped if we have to make changes. Bozanic came on at the weekend when Aaron had to come off.
“Any manager is always looking to strengthen their team but we have got a lot of strength in depth. The young lads will be desperate to get into the team as well so the squad is looking a lot better. Over the course of the season, it’s about 22 or 23 players, not just the guys playing at the moment.”
Those in situ have helped Hearts make an impressive start in both the Ladbrokes Premiership and Betfred Cup. Saturday’s narrow 1-0 victory at Dunfermline took them into the quarter-finals against Motherwell.
“We’ve had a great start to the season and we’re delighted with the results,” said Locke. “The backing from the fans has been superb as well. Everything is really positive so hopefully the boys can keep it going.
“As Seven Naismith touched on, it’s a good sign when you aren’t at your best but you are still winning. At Dunfermline on Saturday, we didn’t play at the levels we did in the previous couple of weeks but you aren’t going to play like that every single week. You have to be realistic.
“The boys showed a bit of resilience and dug in against a really good Dunfermline team who made it difficult for us. It was a big test for us and we came through it. All that matter in the cup is that you are in the next round, which we are.”