Two lower-division clubs stand between Hearts and the William Hill Scottish Cup final. Partick Thistle tonight, Inverness Caledonian Thistle next month. Win both games and the Edinburgh club secure their place in May’s season finale at Hampden Park.
It looks a straightforward task but John Souttar has suffered enough cup torture to last an entire career despite being just 22 years old. He is taking nothing for granted.
As a teenager at Dundee United, he played in the 2013 Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Celtic. He also featured the following season when United beat Rangers in the last four, only for injury to preclude the defender from the final. When United reached the 2015 League Cup final, Souttar was dropped by manager Jackie McNamara and watched the 2-0 defeat by Celtic from the substitutes’ bench.
He joined Hearts early in 2016 hoping to alter his cup fortunes. However, three years later, he is still striving to do so. Injury again meant he wasn’t fit for this season’s League Cup semi-final back in October, which Hearts lost to Celtic, so the Scottish Cup assumes increasing importance for the centre-back.
To Souttar, tonight’s quarter-final replay with Thistle at Tynecastle Park is a potential gateway towards a platform he has hitherto been cruelly denied.
“Cup progress was the original reason I came here. Obviously it hasn’t happened until this season,” he told the Evening News. “When I was at United, we were involved in quite a lot of semi-finals and finals. It just lifts the whole club and it’s so important. This is where we should be – challenging for Europe in March, not just getting to the end of the season floating along. This is where you want to be. You want to be playing in big games that mean something.
“If you can’t get motivated to go to Hampden and play in front of a big crowd, see all the Hearts fans coming through, then I don’t know why you’re playing football. This is an unbelievable chance which doesn’t come along very often.
“Look at Hughesie [Aaron Hughes]. He’s gone through his whole career and he’ll tell you himself that, although he’s done brilliantly to rack up all those appearances, he has never won a trophy. You can’t take anything for granted. You need to make sure you do everything you can for the chance to win it and that starts tonight for us.”
Souttar would love to erase those harrowing cup memories with United from his mind. He simply can’t because the overwhelming hurt and frustration ran too deep.
“I was injured for one of the finals and got dropped for one. Things haven’t been good for me after semis so I’m hoping it changes this time,” he said. “I just know how good a feeling it is [getting to a final] and how good it would be for this club as a whole. It starts tonight. You can’t think too far ahead because, if you do, you’ve seen what happens many times. There have been plenty cup upsets down the years and we can’t take Thistle lightly.”
Last Monday’s 1-1 draw at Firhill exemplifies that very point. Hearts had command of the tie but failed to convert chances into goals. Christie Elliott punished them with a second-half equaliser to set up this evening’s replay in Gorgie.
Partick are fighting relegation in the Championship. Inverness are four places above with ambitions of a promotion play-off spot. Yet Hearts cannot afford to contemplate anything beyond tonight. “Yeah, it showed at Firhill that we need to. We can’t think too far ahead,” remarked Souttar. “Partick did well in the second half against us, as poor as we were. You can’t take them lightly. A lot of their players have real quality, their manager has done well down south so they are no pushovers. If you give them time on the ball and don’t respect them then they will hurt you, which was proven in the first game.”
Hearts have a squad full of hunger and experience. They also generally tend to kill teams off better at Tynecastle. “I’d agree with that. We held on for a 1-0 at Dundee on Saturday despite having chances to go go 2-0 up. If we win 1-0 tonight, we won’t be bothererd. It doesn’t matter how we get through, we just need to win.
“I think the players know that themselves. The game at Dundee on Saturday wasn’t great by any means but we got three points. That’s what you need. You have to grind out results at the end of the season. It doesn’t have to be pretty, you just need to get results. If we get to where we want to be, no-one is going to remember Dundee away at the start of March. There are no bad eggs in our dressing room. The gaffer has recruited well and brought in good characters. There are experienced lads, youth players but everyone is hungry. The boys all want to do well and prove themselves. They are at different stages of their careers but they all have things to play for.”
One thing Souttar has been playing for since returning from hip surgery in January is a recall to the Scotland squad. National coach Alex McLeish names his latest pool today.
“Every game is helping and there have been a lot of games since I came back. I’m getting as close as I can to being fully fit. Fingers-crossed, I’ll be involved with Scotland. It was gutting to miss out with injury the last time. It was like I’d been given a wee snippet of international football and then it was taken away. It was a great motivation for me coming back from injury. I knew if I worked hard and did well, I could be involved again.”