Physical challenges on a football pitch don’t come much tougher than the one John Souttar could face if he makes his Scotland debut at Hampden tomorrow night.
There was a time when the prospect of facing up to all 6ft 3in and near 15 stones of Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku would, by Souttar’s own admission, have cowed him into submission. But the Hearts central defender has come a long way since his introduction to senior football as a precocious but lightweight 16-year-old at Dundee United.
Currently thriving on the responsibility of being captain of the Tynecastle club, Souttar believes the greater physical and mental strength he has developed over the past five years – many of them disrupted by serious injuries – mean he is fully prepared for his senior Scotland debut.
“I agree with people saying that I was too soft younger in my career,” reflects the articulate and refreshingly candid Souttar. “When I was 16, 17 and 18, I would go in against experienced strikers and bounce off them. It would make you not want to go in and challenge them again. You know what it’s like – if you’re not good at something, you back off.
“But it’s something I’ve learned. Now I’m physically developed at 21 and it’s something that I enjoy now. Before, it was down to a lack of physical and emotional maturity.
“You don’t get many centre-halves at 17 or 18 at the top level anywhere. So it was a tough time but it was also brilliant for my development.
“I look back now at some of those strikers who gave me a tough time and I’m grateful for it. Steven MacLean, who is now my team-mate at Hearts, was a very good player with St Johnstone – he gave me a few lessons. I don’t think people give enough credit to how good he is – he’s a top player. Now I play with him, I see it all the time.
“I also remember the year Michael Higdon scored all his goals with Motherwell and I’d broken into the Dundee United team. I was only 16 and I went in to challenge him at a high ball, just bounced off him and ended up on the ground.
“He took it and put it in the top corner at Tannadice and that was the moment I thought ‘Wow, I need to hit the gym’. It was great to go through that experience.
“I definitely feel ready to play for Scotland now. I’ve always wanted to do it so I will relish it. If it does come against Belgium on Friday, I’ll make the most of it and it’ll be a proud day for my family.
“It will be a real test against the likes of Lukaku, but you can only keep learning against better players. If I do get the call to face him, then it will be brilliant and I’ll enjoy it.”
Capped 11 times for Scotland at under-21 level, Souttar was previously called up to the senior squad by Alex McLeish for the summer friendlies in Peru and Mexico but had to call off because of hip and hamstring injuries.
“It was gutting at the time,” he says. “It was the first time I had been named in the squad and although I had a hip injury at the time, I thought I would be alright. But I can remember then doing a fitness test and I knew myself it wasn’t right and I was trying to push it. It would have been stupid to go and make it worse. If I had done that, I might not even have been in this squad. I might have still been injured. Looking back, not going was probably my best decision ever.
“I think taking the summer off and getting my body right for the start of this season with Hearts was a good decision. As a club, we had a tough pre-season and I think that benefited everyone because we have started well.
“It has been a long time since there has been a proper feelgood factor at Hearts. It is probably the first time it has happened in the two years I have been at the club. It’s the first time that everything just seems to be going in the right direction.
“After the problems I’ve had over the past few years, it makes it sweeter when things go well and now I’m in the Scotland squad. I’ve taken a long road to get here. I haven’t just played 15 games, I’ve played 150 and I’ve had injuries to deal with too. I’ve done the hard yards.
“I’ve gone through a lot to get here. I’m more ready than I was before. A year ago – before I did my Achilles and was out for six months – there was talk of me getting a Scotland call-up but now I’m a completely different player. I’m way more ready now than I was back then.
“Having gone through so much, it makes me feel that I deserve the call-up. It also makes me appreciate what I’ve got. After the Achilles injury, I wondered if I’d come back or if I’d lose my pace when I did. But it’s been a year and a bit now and it’s been brilliant.”