John Souttar thriving in solid Hearts defence

Arnaud Djoum celebrates after scoring his flying header. Pic: John Devlin
Arnaud Djoum celebrates after scoring his flying header. Pic: John Devlin
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RATHER than fly banners demanding Robbie Neilson is sacked, hiring an aircraft might be the only way to get beyond this new-look Hearts defence.

Alim Ozturk and John Souttar seem like a tailor-made central defensive partnership already. They played together three times last week, helping Hearts to three wins and three clean sheets.

The small group of fans responsible for Saturday’s “No Style, No Bottle, Neilson Out” message in the skies above Tynecastle should remember it was the head coach who signed both Ozturk and Souttar. In particular, luring the teenager from Dundee United last month is proving to be a shrewd piece of business.

Arnaud Djoum scored the decisive goal in the weekend 1-0 win over Partick Thistle. Don Cowie enjoyed his most influential afternoon so far in a Hearts shirt. However, Souttar could have puffed a cigar while strolling around at the back. Thistle’s concerted second-half pressure yielded nothing as he and Ozturk – ably assisted by full-backs Liam Smith and Igor Rossi, plus goalkeeper Neil Alexander – handled everything with composure.

Souttar frequently strutted out of defence with the ball to start an attack after breaking one up. He won headers against the imposing Mathias Pogba, mopped up through balls and distributed from the back with authority. Ozturk, the club captain, was equally convincing and looks to have found his ideal foil in the Aberdeenshire teen. Had the aforementioned plane flown just a tad lower, one of the two would probably have sprung into the air to head it clear.

“Towards the end of my time at Dundee United I wasn’t enjoying myself at all. If you’re not enjoying yourself, you don’t play the way you want to. I feel like I’ve got a new lease of life here. I feel my confidence is coming back,” said Souttar, who admitted his heading ability has already improved.

“That was the big thing when I came in. I was 17 when I last played centre-half. There are big strikers in this league and there’s going to be that long ball. One of the reasons I came here was to work on that and improve myself and I’ll keep doing that every day.

“A big reason I came here was to learn and get better as a footballer. Every day, I’m learning stuff and improving as a player. I needed guidance. I’m still young, I’m going to make mistakes, everyone is, but I came to Hearts because they showed me a project. They invested £120,000 in me and I think it’s massive to have a club like Hearts believe in you. You just want to go out on the park and do it all the time and repay their faith.

“They outlined why they believe in me, where they think I’m going to play, stuff we’re going to do in training. The training is physically tough. They put a lot of demands on you and they set standards. The training regime here is second to none. We’re working hard every day and it’s not luck that’s winning us these games, it’s hard work and that happens at Riccarton. I do feel a lot fitter, sharper and more confident.”

His handling of 6ft 4in Pogba proved as much. “That’s something I came to Hearts to learn. I think I coped with it a lot better than when I played centre-half at United a couple of years ago. I’ve learned a lot since coming in – how to handle different situations – and I felt comfortable.

“I don’t think it was the prettiest of games but, at this time of the year, having three games in a week is a tough ask for any team. To come out of it with three wins and three clean sheets is brilliant.”

After beating Kilmarnock 1-0 and Inverness 2-0, Saturday was Hearts’ third successive home fixture. They were hardly swashbuckling but Djoum’s 25th-minute header from Cowie’s corner secured another three points in the charge towards the Europa League qualifying stages.

Unbelievably, some fans aren’t happy with this. A small group who have clashed with the club hierarchy due to their behaviour at matches this season went a step too far. When a hired plane appeared in the sky seconds after kick-off with the banner demanding Neilson’s removal, it galvanised supporters inside Tynecastle. Booing broke out, quickly followed by a chant of “One Robbie Neilson”.

“I thought it was unbelievable for fans to pay money to say something like that when we’re sitting third in the league,” said Souttar. “We’ve won the last three and we’re second-top goalscorers in the league. If they want to spend their money on stuff like that, there are a lot of teams in worse positions than us. We’re sitting in the Europa League spot as a team which just came up last year.”

Neilson urged supporters to spend better rather than hiring aeroplanes. “I’d rather people spent their money on Foundation of Hearts, but it’s up to them. They can do what they want. I don’t know what’s going on there. I think we’re sitting in a decent position. I’ll maybe need to look at my gear and see if it makes any difference,” he laughed, referring to the “No Style” message.

“Don’t waste your money on that, give it in to the Foundation – we need everything everyone’s got. I was actually wondering why the fans were shouting my name because I didn’t see it until after the game. I’d prefer them to give the players encouragement, although it was nice to get backing from the fans.

“We weren’t great but I thought we deserved the win. We didn’t give up a lot of chances. Neil Alexander had a good save early in the game. In the first half we were in control and it’s always difficult if you don’t get that second goal, especially towards the end when they put a lot of balls on top of you. It’s three games, three clean sheets and nine points. I’m pleased with where we are.”

Alan Archibald, the Partick Thistle manager, couldn’t hide his astonishment when told details of the banner aimed at Neilson. “He’s up against it, isn’t he? I don’t know where that’s come from. It’s just modern-day football. Robbie’s a victim of his own success. It’s incredible, ridiculous. Be careful what you wish for.”