John Souttar is set to deputise at right-back when Hearts face Inverness tonight, with Tynecastle head coach Robbie Neilson insisting the teenager is already proving value for money.
Hearts paid Dundee United £150,000 for Souttar on transfer deadline day last month and Neilson is delighted with the defender’s contribution so far. He is viewed as a centre-back in the long term by club management but has already played twice at right-back since arriving in Edinburgh. Souttar is likely to do so again this evening, with Callum Paterson sidelined by a shoulder injury.
“I see John as a centre-half,” said Neilson. “That’s where his long-term position will be but when Callum went off on Saturday he shifted over to right-back. He’s played there numerous times for Dundee United so it wasn’t an issue for him. “I knew he was a good player, that’s the reason we paid money for him. We don’t usually pay money for young players like that but when you see a player that’s available and has real potential then it was a no-brainer to bring him in.
“He was coming in as a development player, you know that, but he has come in and performed, trained brilliantly and worked his way into the team. He played centre-half and then right-back on Saturday and, already, you can see that he’s got a lot of quality.
“I’d watched him loads of times, so I knew he was a good player. I think sometimes people look at it and, if you’re a ball-playing centre-half, they think that means you’re not going to win headers. They just expect their central defenders to go and empty everything. But John is strong, he’s physical, he’s very quick – but he’s got great technique on the ball as well. Some people just look at that and think a big, tough centre-half should just shell the ball up the park. John doesn’t do that, he passes it. But he’s also got good physicality.”
After returning to winning form with a 1-0 win over Kilmarnock, Hearts’ sights are trained on catching second-placed Aberdeen in the Ladbrokes Premiership. A win tonight would see them close to within six points of the Pittodrie club.
“I was pleased with the other results on Saturday, obviously,” admitted Neilson. “We came in and saw that Aberdeen and St Johnstone had drawn, which was ideal for us – and Ross County lost, which was another wee lift.
“That gives players the feeling that there’s a wee bit of a gap to us in third. But the main aim now is to aim above us. It’s going to be very difficult to catch Aberdeen because, in my opinion, they’ve been the second best team in Scotland for the last few years. They’ve got good players, a very good manager and have experience in the right areas. So it’s going to be tough to get close to them, but that’s our aim. Our long-term plan is simply to get better and hope that the team next season is better than it’s been from January till the end of this season, which means trying to use the window well. It’s all about progressing all the time and trying to push on.”
Striker Gavin Reilly expressed his belief that Hearts may already have overachieved in their first season back in Scotland’s top flight. However, he also wants to home in on second place if possible.
“After the start we made, winning five of the first six games, it put us in a good position. We’re a newly-promoted team and maybe we’ve overachieved. But we’re at a big club here and you strive to finish as high up the table as possible. We’re third at the moment, with an eye on second. We’ll see how it goes.”