Hearts are a “different animal”. That was the assessment of John Souttar and it’s difficult to argue with the stand-in captain after the Tynecastle side retained their 100 per cent league record with a 1-0 victory over Kilmarnock this past weekend.
Uche Ikpeazu found the only goal of the game with eight minutes to play as Craig Levein’s men finally managed to break the the home side’s resolve following a red card dished out to Gary Dicker.
However, while Killie boss Steve Clarke pointed the finger of blame solely at referee Willie Collum, it would be churlish not to recognise the assured performance from the visitors, who enjoyed the territorial advantage, created the better chances and limited their hosts before Dicker’s challenge on Callumn Morrison gave them a one-man advantage. This type of display would have been completely alien for members of the strong travelling support who regularly watched their side away from home last term and it further underlines the transformation undergone by the Gorgie Road outfit. In 20 away games in the 2017/18 season, Hearts won four times, and that’s not counting the three occasions they failed to find victory from the “home” fixtures at Murrayfield. They’re already halfway to that total three games into the new campaign.
“If you looked at the fixtures at the start of the season and said we’d win all three, I’m not sure anyone would have believed you,” said John Soutar
“Last year, we struggled away from home but this season we seem to be doing well so we’re just delighted. It’s great to have this momentum at the start of a season.
“If you look at us this time last year, we were at Murrayfield toiling through games and there was no consistency. This year, we seem to be a different animal.
“We’re just enjoying our football and just need to keep it up.”
Even after the sending-off, Hearts were still made to work for the three points, with ex-Jambos stopper Jamie MacDonald in excellent form between the sticks for the hosts.
The 2012 Scottish Cup winner had already made a pair of strong first-half stops from Olly Lee and debutant Jimmy Dunne when he produced a save of the season contender to deny Steven MacLean from close range.
Rather than let the save sap their confidence, the away side kept going and found their winner when Ikpeazu – tremendous all afternoon – powered in a header from 18 yards following a cross from Peter Haring.
The Hearts players believe they’re already feeling the benefits of a pre-season where fitness was paramount as they look to drastically improve on last term. That doesn’t mean they’re willing to look back on it fondly, though.
“Pre-season was incredible. We’re feeling the benefit now but it was disgusting at the time,” said Souttar, who appeared to be suffering from a light form of PTSD when broached on the subject.
“The hardest I’ve ever done. The running we did ... it brought us together as a group.
“Being sick in your mouth around the training pitch was disgusting at the time but it’s one of these things that’s brought us together.
“The gaffer has installed a mentality in us that we keep going until the end. You saw how much we are together at the end when they were piling on the pressure. It’s a real bond we have this year.”
The centre-back enjoyed his third clean sheet in as many weeks. Keeping the captain’s armband, Souttar was tasked with both marshalling the defence as a whole and helping Dunne to integrate seamlessly into the unit. It worked flawlessly with neither Kris Boyd nor Jordan Jones, playing off the veteran striker, enjoying a single opportunity in front of goal.
Though he may seem a little young to be leading a top-flight side into battle, Souttar has maturity beyond his years having been a mainstay of both Dundee United and Hearts first-team squads since he was 16 years old.
“I’ve got a lot of matches under my belt,” he added. “I’m at 150-plus games now. It’s something I’m thankful to all the managers I’ve had before that they trusted me when I wasn’t quite ready and not as physical as I am now to keep playing me and believing in me.
“People say that brings a pressure but you’ve just got to enjoy your football. It’s something I’ve just embraced more than worrying about the pressure.”