Hearts renaissance shines through in Scotland's World Cup play-off success
Blood pumping, eardrums vibrating and limbs flailing. That summarised the scene inside Hampden Park late on Monday night, although don’t forget hearts beating.
If there were boisterous celebrations in Mount Florida as Scotland beat Denmark 2-0 to secure a seeded World Cup play-off place, there would have been quiet smiles of satisfaction across in Gorgie. Two of Tynecastle’s own were back in business at the top level, after all.
Hearts’ own renaissance on the international stage began manifesting itself through Craig Gordon’s reinstatement as the country’s first-choice goalkeeper in September. Against Denmark, defender John Souttar joined him in the starting line-up and marked the occasion with his first Scotland goal.
Both men have defiantly fought back from career-threatening injuries to regain international recognition. As Souttar headed home at one end, Gordon was beating away Andreas Cornelius’ header at the other.
That’s three days after he saved Vadim Rata's penalty in Moldova. He is now the most-capped player in Hearts history after earning his 33rd cap with the club, and his 64th overall.
The collective heartbeat in the west of Edinburgh is pumping with pride at the players’ achievements, particularly in tandem with the club’s own recovery since a controversially-enforced relegation 18 months ago. They are now back near the top end of the Premiership with players again coveted by national coaches.
Souttar’s recovery from three Achilles ruptures helped end a three-year international hiatus for the 25-year-old. The revival of 38-year-old Gordon since returning to Hearts is another fascinating tale.
The romance of both stories adds an emotional sideshow to Scotland’s World Cup voyage and, after six competitive wins in a row for the first time since 1930, the nation’s footballing heart is pulsating like never before in living memory.
“Monday night was nice and I really enjoyed going to the game,” said Robbie Neilson, the Hearts manager. “For a while you would go these games and there were no Hearts players involved. Now we have two guys who have played a very prominent role in beating a top team.
“It’s brilliant for John, he has had a really tough time over the last few years. He built himself up twice after those injuries and then at the beginning of last season the Achilles went again. It’s been a really difficult time for him but he has managed to fight through it.
“It just shows that, with the strength and commitment to keep doing it and doing it, he has managed to get himself back to the top level. He’s back playing international football again, scoring against one of the top teams and helping Scotland win games.
“I sent him a Whatsapp after the game. I knew his phone would be a bit busy. I’m pleased for him and his family.
“It’s been great for Craig getting two clean sheets as well. We’ve given Craig and John some time off to spend with their families and then they will come back in. It’s fitting that Craig is now the most-capped Hearts player of all time and hopefully he will get quite a few more.
“He had a couple of good saves in both the games, one from point-blank range in the second half against Denmark. He just seems to be going from strength to strength and long may it continue.”
The speed of Souttar’s progress since returning from injury seven months ago has been remarkable. While some outside observers doubted whether he could overcome a third devastating setback, this is a young man for whom the word ‘resilient’ may well have been coined.
He also owes enormous thanks to Hearts for the time, effort and money spent to restore him to fitness. “The medical and fitness staff probably have to take the most credit for getting John back,” said Neilson.
“The last time he did his Achilles he didn’t get the right rehab because we went into lockdown. You can see the difference this time now he’s had a full rehab on it. He has been working properly day in and day out.
“I’m delighted for John and credit to the medical staff because it’s been a long road for him. He deserves to be where he is now with Scotland. If these injuries hadn’t happened, he would have been there a lot earlier.”
He probably wouldn’t still be at Hearts, either. “Probably not,” acknowledged Neilson. It remains to be seen whether Souttar will extend his Tynecastle contract with several English clubs keen to sign him for free at the end of the current campaign.
Provided he stays fit, he could play another key role for Scotland when those aforementioned play-offs come round next March. Indeed, it has been some time since the Edinburgh club enjoyed multiple representation in the national squad.
A halcyon period in the mid-2000s peaked with Gordon, Steven Pressley, Andy Webster and Paul Hartley all frequently enlisted for service by the Scottish FA. Neilson joined them himself on one occasion, winning a cap away to Ukraine in 2006.
Souttar’s name appearing beside Gordon’s on Steve Clarke’s squad list offers hope that an even stronger maroon tint could take hold at Hampden in the months ahead. Neilson is just thankful that the defender came through international fortnight unscathed.
“I knew from speaking to Steve that he wouldn’t play in the first game in Moldova,” explained the manager. “We thought, if things went the way we hoped, he would potentially be involved in the second game.
“From our perspective, it’s one game in a two-week period. It’s a Monday game so that gives him plenty of time to recover before we go to Motherwell on Saturday.
“We have had situations previously where players are on international duty on the Wednesday or even the Thursday and then Hearts are playing at the weekend.
“John did really well for Scotland and now we know he is going to be back here and recovered in time for Saturday.”