Watching close friend Andy Robertson join Liverpool for £10 million, John Souttar was grateful for much smaller mercies. Like feeling the Tynecastle grass crunch beneath his feet again, hearing the much-loved crack of boot against ball, and feeling Jack Hamilton clatter into his ribs.
All of the above confirmed Souttar was back in business six months since rupturing his Achilles tendon at Celtic Park. Well, that and the monsoon which engulfed Gorgie on Saturday despite it being mid-July. The 20-year-old Hearts defender played his first competitive game since the injury in the Betfred Cup win over East Fife, and quickly felt like he’d never been away.
Whilst Robertson – his mate from their Dundee United days – house-hunted on Merseyside following a multi-million-pound transfer, the 20-year-old was making a somewhat surprise comeback. It was forecast that he would miss up to ten months of football but his powers of recovery have shaved a remarkable four months off that timeframe. He even survived a flooring by goalkeeper Hamilton as Hearts recorded a comfortable 3-0 win.
Kyle Lafferty scored twice, one a penalty, Christophe Berra headed his first goal since returning to Edinburgh, Hamilton kept another clean sheet, Jordan McGhee impressed in defence and 17-year-old Bulgarian Alex Petkov made his senior debut. Positives were aplenty for Hearts but Souttar’s return eclipsed them all.
“I didn’t think I’d be anywhere near back at this stage so to be back on the pitch was just amazing,” said the 20-year-old. “I always thought I would be back quicker [than doctors predicted]. We’ve got a great medical staff here and a lot of people behind the scenes, my Thai therapist, my family, just everyone helping out. I knew I would be back soon but I didn’t think I would be back five-and-a-half months after the op because it’s a massive operation. To come back and feel as good as I did was brilliant. I didn’t feel anything at all.”
It would be hard to identify the happier player right now between Souttar and Robertson. Different levels of football, but very similar elation. “Andy’s a top player. It was never in doubt where he was going to go. I’m sure he will go on to be a massive hit at Liverpool,” said Souttar. “I spoke to him yesterday. He was on cloud nine. He has signed for one of the biggest clubs in Europe. It’s an amazing time. I look forward to going down and seeing him.”
Only once he has achieved optimum fitness, of course. Hearts’ plan was always to restrict Souttar to 45 minutes at the weekend. He had only played one half of an under-20 friendly prior to the weekend. Therefore it was wise not to push him. He received a ‘welcome back’ thump just before the interval when Hamilton emerged for a cross and knocked his young team-mate over.
“It was in the ribs. I didn’t miss that. That was a nice welcome back from Jack,” smiled Souttar. “That’s only my second game. I played 45 minutes during the week and 45 on Saturday. I’m just taking it easy. That was always the plan. There have been lonely days in there on the spin bikes, looking at a blank wall, thinking all I wanted to do was get back. So to get back, get playing and get the win as well was amazing.”
Souttar’s performance was faultless. If anyone didn’t mind the torrential rain and the difficulties it presented, it was him. He started centrally in a back three flanked by McGhee and Berra. Quickly, he stepped forward to play just in front of the other two, almost as a sitting midfielder. From there he dictated play, sprayed passes and looked a class act. He also provided the cross for Lafferty to head the opening goal on 22 minutes.
Playing one centre-back advanced and two wing-backs high up the pitch left only McGhee and Berra defending for Hearts. All fine against League One East Fife but suicide if such tactics were to be employed in the Ladbrokes Premiership. Souttar enjoyed his role as playmaker-for-the-day and finished the afternoon feeling stronger than before.
“I was in the gym every day for five months. I’ve worked my b**** off,” he said. “I’ve worked as hard as I possibly can ever day. I just looked on the injury as a positive to get stronger and more powerful. I’ve worked as hard as I possibly can both medically and physically to get back. It helps on the pitch. That was one of the positives when I was injured.
“If you feel sorry for yourself, it is going to affect everything. You need to be mentally strong. I’ve gone through a lot of stuff in my career. I’m only 20 and I’ve been through quite a lot that’s going to make me mentally strong. That was another test and I’m back five-and-a-half months after an Achilles rupture.”
Head coach Ian Cathro told Souttar on Thursday that he would be elevated to first-team duty for the first time since January. “I felt like I was training hard and I was physically ready so I wasn’t worrying or anything like that. I knew my Achilles was brilliant. The medical staff and my Thai therapist saw to that and I’ve got 100 per cent confidence in my Achilles. So I was fine no matter what.
“I was always grateful but being injured makes you miss the game more than anything. I love football. I’m obsessed with it. So to get that taken away from you almost gives you a bit more hunger and desire to come back a better player, which hopefully I’ll do. I just thought: ‘Work hard every day and I’ll be back quicker than everybody else is saying.’
“What helped me when I was injured was the fact that Hearts believed in me coming back. They paid money for me when not many teams were going to so I’ve got a lot to pay back. Hopefully I paid it back last season and can keep doing the same.”
Hearts could have scored double or even treble their three-goal tally if the truth be told. They created a plethora of chances but were happy to settle for three. The score was only 1-0 at half-time thanks to Lafferty’ opener but the game was dead once Berra headed home substitute Malaury Martin’s corner to double the advantage.
When Ben Gordon fouled Esmael Goncalves inside the penalty area and was sent off for a second yellow card, Lafferty took the opportunity to claim his second of the day. The Northern Irishman is fast becoming Hearts’ League Cup talisman following his winner in Elgin on Tuesday. Saturday, though, belonged to Souttar.