Strolling around the Hampden pitch in a Scotland shirt, John Souttar looks made for international football.
Others crumbled as Belgium ran riot last Friday but the Hearts defender stood up to the test on his senior debut. Three days later he returned for an encore against Albania. At 21, he is now entrenched in the Scottish defence and should stay there for years to come.
His Tynecastle Park colleague Steven Naismith dominated the headlines as the goalscoring catalyst for Monday’s Nations League victory. Souttar was an equal success. Never out of place against the rampaging Belgian superstars, he was even more authoritative in the Albanian tie. When tackles were required, he obliged. When blocks and interceptions were called for, he was there. As every Hearts fan knows, he oozed confidence with the ball at his feet, too.
In short, a productive few days with Alex McLeish’s international squad brings Souttar back to Riccarton tomorrow high on confidence. Since first kicking a football around the Aberdeenshire village of Luthermuir as a child, he longed to play for his country. That box finally ticked, he now represents the central defensive future of the Scotland national team.
“It’s been a long wait. A lot of stuff has gone on in the middle of it,” said Souttar. “I’ve been linked with the Scotland squad for a long time, as I’m sure everyone knows. The fact I went through all that has made it all the sweeter and made it more enjoyable. Now, at 21, I feel like I’m ready physically and mentally for these sort of fixtures.
“I think it is a step up. Not in terms of day-to-day because, at Hearts, we’re very professional. The way the gaffer [Craig Levein] works and the demands we put on ourselves is as good as being with Scotland. It’s just a different type of football. On Friday, I think I headed the ball three times. In the Premiership, I do that inside the first 30 seconds. It’s a different sort of test but it’s one I really enjoyed.”
Losing 4-0 to an imperious Belgium on your international debut would have crushed lesser centre-backs. Since leaving Dundee United for Hearts, Souttar has developed a more durable and resilient exterior. His performance in the 2-0 win against Albania confirmed he can recover from adversity at any level.
“Friday night was a tough game for everyone involved. I know it’s sort of lip service after the game but we always said: ‘Judge us on Monday.’ We meant it,” he explained. “We believe in ourselves and we believe in the manager. I think we showed that against Albania.
“It helps me the way the gaffer sets up. He wants to play football, which suits me down to a tee. I enjoyed it. You’re playing for your country, which is something I dreamed of when I was a boy. I’m just enjoying every minute of it.”
The dreaded Australia question has also now been removed from the equation. The Nations League tie was competitive, meaning Souttar cannot now be capped for any other country despite being eligible for the Socceroos through his mother. “Oh my God. I’m absolutely delighted I’ve got that off my back,” he smiled, reiterating that he never wanted to play for anyone but Scotland.
He will experience more enjoyable nights in dark blue if Naismith and others can maintain form. The Hearts forward nodded the second goal against Albania after his other header was deflected into the net. He might have had a hat-trick had he not glanced the ball against a post in the first half. Whilst Souttar is striving to build an international career, 31-year-old Naismith is making a fine job of rekindling his.
“Look at Naisy the other night, he was unbelievable,” said Souttar of the Hearts striker who has eight goals in ten games for club and country so far this season. “As a club, we’ve got Scotland’s top goalscorer and he’s the main man now. It’s brilliant. It can only help us at club level.
“I can’t speak highly enough of him as a professional and as a player, how much I’ve learned from him. I think everyone has. At this age, scoring goals for Scotland, leading the line and playing like that, you’ve got to live your life well. He does that and he’s an exceptional professional, so I’m delighted for him.”
The Scotland call-up also allowed the defender to play once again in the company of Andy Robertson, Johnny Russell and Stuart Armstrong. Their bond formed at United remains strong despite one notable absentee. “We just need Gauldie there. Hopefully one day. I’m sure it will come for him,” said Souttar of his close friend Ryan Gauld, who is currently on loan at the Portuguese club Farense from Sporting Lisbon.
“It did just feel like the old days at Tannadice not so long ago. It’s brilliant to have familiar faces with you at international level. I don’t think we ever talked about us all playing for Scotland at the one time. Four of us are here just now. We’re just missing Gauldie - probably the best one out of the lot of us at the time. I’m sure his time will come.”
None of this would be possible for Souttar without one man’s foresight. Levein, the Hearts manager, was solely director of football at Tynecastle when the then-19-year-old was plucked from Tannadice in 2016. He saw potential in a player who was on the fringes of the United squad at the time and it has been proven a shrewd move.
Levein returned to work this week after a health scare but would have enjoyed a wry smile seeing Souttar earn his first full Scotland caps. “He put himself on the line for me by bringing me to Hearts, to be fair. At times when I wasn’t playing well, he has backed me. He has put a lot of trust in me so I was upset when I heard the news about his health,” said the defender.
“Hopefully the two caps I’ve won have cheered him up a bit and I’ll see him on Thursday. Everyone loves the gaffer. I can’t speak highly enough of him for what he has done for me and everyone around the club. It was a massive shock [hearing he was ill].
“Sometimes with a manager there are things people don’t like, but at Hearts everyone loves him. He is a huge character in the building. I’m just glad he’s back. He texted me before the game on Friday so I’ll be glad to see him at training.”