John Souttar insists Hearts will head to Hampden tomorrow driven by a determination to ensure that a season which once promised so much is crowned with a tangible reward.
The Tynecastle side looked like they might be about to emerge as genuine title contenders in the opening three months of the campaign as they surged six points clear at the top of the Premiership towards the end of October. However, they have lost their way over the past five months and have slipped from first place to sixth, eight points adrift of the top four and almost certainly out of contention for Europa League qualification via their league position. This means that their only hope of salvaging the campaign from the jaws of mediocrity appears to be by winning the Scottish Cup. Souttar knows that, with a semi-final tomorrow against Championship side Inverness Caledonian Thistle, this is an opportunity they must seize.
“Getting to a final would be massive for the club at any time, but obviously the way the season has gone for us, this has become an even bigger match,” Souttar told the Evening News. “After the way the season started, it’s important that we end up with something to show for it. We’re two games away from winning a trophy, so it’s an unbelievable chance for us. We started so well but for one reason or another, it didn’t work out for us.
“We’ve not had much consistency throughout the season in terms of team selection. There are a number of factors but losing big players at tough moments is the biggest factor for me. If you want to challenge at the top end and you don’t have the biggest budget in the league, it’s hard if you lose a few of your biggest players at the same time. The teams that have done well have been more consistent with their team selection than we’ve been able to be this season.”
Souttar was one of those key players who missed a significant chunk of this season to injury, along with Christophe Berra, Steven Naismith and Uche Ikpeazu, among others. Although they have all returned to the fray in the past few months, Hearts have been unable to rediscover the collective harmony that carried them clear of everyone else in the country during those intoxicating opening three months of the campaign when everything seemed possible. Despite their dip in form, Souttar maintains that his team are not far away from rediscovering a sense of buoyancy.
“I thought the Aberdeen game (a fortnight ago) was going to be the catalyst for us and I thought we played really well against Hibs for long periods of the game, probably the best we’ve played in a derby for a long time,” he said of last Saturday’s 2-1 home defeat. “We’ve certainly won derbies when we’ve played nowhere near as good as we did at the weekend. We also had the win at Kilmarnock in February when I thought we were going to take off again but it’s hard to put your finger on why it’s not quite happened.
“Everything came together perfectly for us at the start of the season but once you lose bits and pieces of what made it work so well, it can be hard to get that back. It’s not an excuse but when you win at Rugby Park, you think we might be getting back towards our best, then a couple of games after that, Naisy’s ruled out potentially for the rest of the season. It’s been one thing after another, really. But no matter what happens in the league, we’ve still got a chance to make this a season to remember by winning the Scottish Cup. People who win the Scottish Cup go down in history so it’s a great chance for us and we’ve got to focus on that. Last year we were in the top six but we were just playing out the season with nothing to play for. But this season we’ve got a real chance to achieve something.”
The build-up to Saturday’s match has been soured for Hearts by the fallout from last weekend’s derby defeat, with supporters turning on Craig Levein and his players, and some calling for the manager’s head. Souttar, who has seen all of his previous managers – Jackie McNamara, Mixu Paatelainen, Robbie Neilson and Ian Cathro – come under varying degrees of pressure is adamant he has grown accustomed to blocking out outside noise on focusing on the task at hand.
“Personally, I don’t feel the negativity at all,” said the 23-year-old centre-back. “It’s just opinions. People are always going to have their say in football because everyone’s got an opinion but you’ve just got to be strong enough to block it all out and be focused on doing well for yourself and your club. Opinions are always going to be there so it’s up to you if you want to listen to all the opinions out there but I don’t detect the negativity. I’ve had people calling for managers’ heads throughout my career at both Dundee United and Hearts. It happens a lot, unfortunately. That’s football.”