Despite expressing an interest in James Hill before the former Fleetwood Town defender completed a £1m move to Bournemouth, the The Star is reporting that the Hearts defender has always been Heckingbottom’s preferred candidate to fill the vacancy which exists for a new centre-half within Bramall Lane’s first team squad.
United’s board of directors confirmed young players – with particular focus being placed on United’s own academy – would form the basis of the “strategic vision” which prompted Heckingbottom’s appointment in November, when two-time promotion winner Slavisa Jokanovic was sacked following a series of disagreements about recruitment policy.
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Previously in charge of United’s under-23 side, Heckingbottom has stressed he is “always more than happy” to give youth a chance. But after seeing them slip to 13th in the Championship table following a series of postponements over the Christmas and New Year period, despite winning all three of their league outings under his command, Heckingbottom told The Star United also require proven talent in order to challenge for an immediate return to the Premier League.
Aged 25 and capped four times by Scotland at international level, Souttar fits the bill.
“Experience is going to be important,” Heckingbottom said, confirming he is battling Rangers and Blackburn Rovers for Souttar’s signature. “You could rip everything up and go with a totally young group. But you’ve got to be winning in order to be competitive.
“Listen, lots of clubs want to do it – make youth and young players the centre of their model. But if you do that at the expense of league position, then it’s the wrong model.”
“This season, for me, it’s a big opportunity,” he added. “For me, the only thought is this season and what happens.”
Like United, who boast four games in hand on sixth-placed Huddersfield Town, Heckingbottom believes latest opponents Derby County are in a false position after twice being deducted points for breaching the EFL’s financial regulations.
Having allowed Phil Jagielka to depart when his contract expired following last term’s relegation from the Premier League - he was later hired by County - United could be forced to ask either Rhys Norrington-Davies or Kyron Gordon to cover at centre-half if Jack Robinson is not available for selection tomorrow afternoon.
Souttar becomes a free agent at the end of the Scottish Premiership campaign and, although Hearts have been briefing journalists north of the border that it would take a huge offer to persuade them to sell now, lines of communication are thought to have been established with officials at Ibrox, Ewood Park and in South Yorkshire.
“We might do some but we don’t want to focus on loans,” said Heckingbottom, whose predecessor Jokanovic was limited to temporary and free transfers before being fired. “If the only thing we can do is loans then it’s a short term thing and, for us, we don’t really get all of the benefit of our hard work from that.”