Hearts prioritise John Souttar's fitness with defender out to complete pre-season for the first time since 2018
The run of five successive clean sheets which helped Hearts finish last season strongly should not be regarded as mere coincidence. Underpinning the defensive solidity was a certain John Souttar.
A third Achilles rupture ruined the centre-back’s 2020/21 campaign and he only returned for the final month. It became instantly obvious what was missing as the 24-year-old eased himself back into competitive football.
Having worked all summer at Riccarton, he is determined to reap the benefits of his first uninterrupted pre-season since 2018. Injuries have tortured Souttar more than most players his age but he retains an admirable resilience, not to mention unshakeable self-belief.
A fit and available Souttar was precisely what Hearts missed last term when Brora Rangers, Alloa and Queen of the South were knocking goals past them with worrying ease. His return in time for the Edinburgh club’s reintroduction to the Scottish Premiership offers considerable relief and security.
“I was speaking to John the other day and he was saying that this is his first full pre-season since 2018. It is definitely giving him a boost getting a full pre-season under his belt and getting his fitness levels up,” manager Robbie Neilson told the Evening News.
“He is a huge player for us. You see that last season when he came back into the team and played a few games towards the end of the campaign. He is a top player. Our job is to keep him fit and keep him playing. If we can do that, we have a really good player on our hands.”
As do Scotland. Souttar already holds three senior caps, a total which would be far greater were it not for the aforementioned injury problems. An international recall will be at the back of his mind.
“He can definitely get back to that level. He ticks all the boxes of what you are looking for in an international player,” continued Neilson. “He's got good mobility and he's very good on the ball. Hopefully he can get back involved at that level, but first and foremost he has to get himself into the Hearts team regularly.”
Last season’s early curtailment on April 30 left Souttar more frustrated than anyone just as he was building momentum. He continued training several times a week at Riccarton whilst other colleagues took a break, hoping the endeavour would pay off.
When he takes to the field at Balmoor this Saturday in Hearts’ opening Premier Sports Cup tie, fully ten weeks will have passed since that final Championship game at Raith Rovers.
“John is just desperate to get back playing week in and week out. I think last season ended too soon for him,” admitted Neilson. “He trained right through the summer with the group we had who were in doing sessions. He was in most days and that will help him as well. He is desperate to get going again.”
Once at peak fitness, Hearts would be well advised to sit down for contract discussions with one of their biggest assets. Souttar’s deal expires next summer.
“It's definitely something we will look at but the priority at the moment for him is getting back playing regularly,” said Neilson. “He has missed a long period of football so his main focus has got to be playing.”