John Souttar has paid tribute to Alim Ozturk as the inspirational Hearts captain prepares to return to the defence for tomorrow’s lunchtime trip to league leaders Celtic.
The 23-year-old Turk has helped the Tynecastle side keep seven clean sheets in his ten matches since returning in late December following a three-month lay-off after stomach surgery in September. Even in one of the three matches in which Hearts did concede, they had been leading Hibs 2-0 in the Scottish Cup at the point when Ozturk left the field injured. Their rivals subsequently roared back to level with two goals in the last ten minutes. Hibs went on to win the replay at Easter Road as the former Turkey Under-21 internationalist missed out due to suspension.
In a further indication of his importance to the team, a run of four consecutive clean sheets with Ozturk in the side was halted in emphatic fashion when his absence due to a hamstring niggle a fortnight ago coincided with a 3-0 home defeat by St Johnstone. In short, Hearts have conceded only two goals – both away to Dundee United – in the last eight and a half games in which the skipper has been on the pitch.
Souttar played alongside Ozturk for each of the four most recent shut outs, and is in no doubt about his central defensive sidekick’s value. “Alim’s one of our best players,” the former Dundee United teenager said. “Any team in the Premiership would miss him. I like playing with him and hopefully he likes playing with me. We did really well for the four games but unfortunately he got injured and that stopped the partnership. It’s easy to play next to him. He’s clever, he reads the game well, he’s good on the ball and he’s a good leader.
“You don’t get made captain at his age unless you’re confident and a leader so that says everything about him. Even though he’s young, he has experienced playing in three different countries. I think he’ll go to the top league in England or somewhere like that eventually, although hopefully not any time in the near future.”
Ozturk isn’t the only Hearts player who has helped Souttar enjoy an excellent start to his own Tynecastle career. The 19-year-old is indebted to Sam Nicholson, with whom he shares an agent, for allowing him to stay with him in his Penicuik home while he adjusts to his new surroundings. Souttar explained that he is repaying his Scotland Under-21 colleague by teaching him how to fend for himself.
“It’s good of Sam to let me stay with him,” he said. “I knew him before I came to Hearts and it’s helped me settle in because I didn’t have a clue about anything in the area before I came down here. I like living out in Penicuik. It’s a big Hearts-supporting area. I’m from out in the country myself and I don’t like living in a city so being in Penicuik suits me fine. I quite like the quiet life and keeping myself to myself. I’ll be getting my own place with my girlfriend but I will stay near Sam. He’s become a really good friend.
“He’s a big kid, to be honest. I’ve had to teach him so much. He can cook now but only because I taught him. I lived by myself in Dundee so I knew how to cook already but he’s just recently moved into his own place so he’s still learning. He’s a great guy and it’s good staying with him.”
Souttar and Nicholson have both spent the international break on Scotland Under-21 duty. They were joined by Tynecastle colleagues Jordan McGhee, Liam Smith and Jack Hamilton, as well as Billy King, who is presently on loan at Rangers. Souttar and McGhee played together at centre-half in both matches – a 2-0 defeat in France and a 3-1 home win over Northern Ireland – and the ex-United player hopes the pair can one day fulfil their teenage promise by playing together for the full Scotland team.
“You shouldn’t be playing the game unless you want to play for the national team but I think we’ve both got a long way to go until then,” Souttar said. “I enjoyed playing beside Jordan. We played together for Scotland Under-17s and the 19s so we know each other’s game well. We both like to come out and play from the back. We’re two young centre-backs with a lot to learn but we’ve got time on our side. Whether we play beside a more experienced partner or alongside each other, we’re both going to make mistakes, but the main thing is that we learn from them and keep enjoying our football. We’re both still developing but we’re at a good club to do that.”
Souttar is likely to remain in the Hearts side as they visit Celtic tomorrow looking for their first league win at Parkhead in nine years. The defender’s last trip to Glasgow’s east end brought a demoralising 5-0 defeat while in Dundee United colours five months ago, although he is far more optimistic about his current team’s prospects of collecting points there as they bid to chase down Aberdeen in the battle for second place in the Premiership. “Whenever you go to Celtic everyone needs to play well if you’re to get a result,” said Souttar. “United were struggling at the time [of the 5-0 defeat]. When you’re fighting relegation and you’re short of confidence, the last place you want to go is Celtic Park. It’s tough.
“A couple of seasons ago [November 2013] when United were doing well, we went there and got a draw. Celtic equalised in the 93rd minute so I know what it’s like to go there and put in a good performance and keep them at bay for long periods. Hearts drew 0-0 there earlier in the season, so we’ll fancy our chances. Even though we lost our last game, there’s a lot of confidence in this group. It’s a massive game for us because we’re looking towards Aberdeen, hoping they slip up and that we keep winning. If we beat Celtic, it would heap pressure on them.”