John Souttar has no intention of leaving Hearts in the January transfer window despite reported interest from Derby County. He wants to stay at Tynecastle and repay a club which has transformed him into a more complete defender.
Derby are reportedly preparing a £1 million bid hoping to tempt Souttar to the English Championship following some imperious recent displays in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
The Scotland Under-21 internationalist is contracted to Hearts until 2020 and a transfer hasn’t crossed his mind. Procured from Dundee United for just £120,000 two years ago, he feels he owes his current employers some payback for their faith.
Manager Craig Levein remarked after Saturday’s record-breaking goalless draw with Aberdeen that Souttar would not need to deal with Championship clubs if he keeps improving. The inference, of course, was that he will soon attract attention from English Premier League.
The reason for the 21-year-old’s prosperity is belief, trust and confidence from Hearts’ management team as well as some diligent coaching work at Riccarton.
“It’s obviously nice to hear that from the gaffer but I am just focused on Hearts right now,” explained Souttar. “The club took me in when I wasn’t in the best of form and they have developed me. I am due them something back and also due the fans something back because they have been brilliant to me.
“I am not thinking about anything else. I just want to be part of a successful Hearts team. The January window isn’t something I have even thought about.”
Speculation about his future is nothing new to Souttar, a regular at senior level since breaking into the United first team aged 16. Five years on, he is better equipped to shrug it off.
“When I was younger I experienced it and probably struggled with it a wee bit, but I’m 21 now and have more experience behind me,” he said. “It’s not something that will bother me. I just want to enjoy the winter break and come back ready to go again.
“The last year had a lot of lows for me with my injuries so it has been good to end it like this. I just want to keep developing in 2018 and helping the team climb up the table. We are back at Tynecastle now so there is plenty to look forward to.”
Hearts ended 2017 unbeaten in nine games and with a record-breaking six successive clean sheets. Souttar played his part in a central defensive partnership with captain Christophe Berra which is fast becoming the cornerstone of Levein’s team.
“When the gaffer came in he said we had to stop losing goals, become harder to beat and give ourselves a platform to build on. That’s something we have done lately and I think we are getting better all the time.
“We do a lot of ball and possession work in training, I think things have just clicked. We do a lot of work on how the manager wants to play, and on top of that I am learning from Aaron Hughes and Christophe all the time. They have been really important to my development.
“I have learned loads from them on and off the pitch, they are experienced and pass on what they have picked up to me. It’s massive for us to have them and also Don Cowie in the dressing-room because they lead by example.
“All the young players at the club look up to them and get lessons on how you should live your life on the pitch and off it. They are role models for the rest of the team. I know the likes of Harry Cochrane are really looking up to them and seeing how they live their lives.
“You have to have players like that around the place. They are looking at Don putting in 12 kilometres during matches at the age of 34 and they see how it should be done.”
With the blend of experience and youth, Hearts finished last year significantly more battle-hardened than they had looked for much of the previous 11 months.
“It’s obviously a big achievement to keep six clean sheets in a row, the lads were delighted to do it,” said Souttar. “The Aberdeen game wasn’t the best but to go up there and stop them scoring is a good result.
“We went down to ten men towards the end [due to Kyle Lafferty’s red card] and that has happened a few times this season, but we showed once again we can battle. Obviously you don’t want to be doing that but we know we can do it.
“It was tough for us at the start of the season, especially being away from Tynecastle. That is where we build things up and since we got back there we haven’t lost a game. Throughout the first part of the season we said we couldn’t wait to get back there, and we are showing why.”
Souttar also paid tribute to his goalkeeper, Jon McLaughlin, for the ongoing run of clean sheets. “Jon has been brilliant since he came in, his saves against Aberdeen were world-class. He is an excellent goalkeeper, even when he isn’t busy during games he’s always there when we need him.
“He’s right up there with the best keepers I have played with. Jack Hamilton was a great keeper last season but Jon has the experience of playing in England and that has been massive.”