Paul Ritchie backs Hearts defender John Souttar to succeed at a level higher than Rangers
Coming to the end of his contract, it seems likely the Scottish international will be on his way out at some point in 2022. A plethora of clubs in the English Championship are ready to pounce, but there is a familiar, resented foe from across the M8 who have once again managed to position themselves at the front of the queue for an ascending Hearts centre-half.
Whether it be Dave McPherson, Alan McLaren, Paul Ritchie, Andy Webster or Danny Wilson, the Ibrox side have made it a habit of luring the best-and-brightest in Gorgie Road stoppers across the last 30 years.
There have been success stories. McLaren was forced to retire early through injury but he captained Rangers they night they clinched nine-in-a-row. McPherson won two league titles and three cups in his two-year return to his first club. And while Wilson didn’t experience the same level of success, he was still a key member of the team which won promotion from the Championship.
Then there are the other two. Webster joined following a brief, and highly contentious, detour at Wigan Athletic but made just three appearances in four seasons before returning to Hearts. As for Ritchie?
“You’re asking the wrong person,” laughs the former defender when asked about the challenges of moving to Rangers. “I wasn’t there long enough to know!”
The 46-year-old, now the owner of Box Soccer San Diego, is a cautionary tale for younger players drawn by the allure of playing for either of Scottish football’s two biggest clubs.
Moving in the summer of 2000 after his contract at Hearts expired, following a loan move at Bolton Wanderers, Ritchie didn’t play a single game at Rangers before being moved on to Manchester City two months later. Though he enjoyed the rest of his career before retiring in 2009, including winning his seventh and final Scotland cap, he never quite hit the same heights before that ill-fated switch.
Despite this, he has no doubts whatsoever Souttar will make a success of himself if he decides to swap maroon for light blue.
“I wouldn’t imagine that what happened to me at Rangers would happen to John,” Ritchie told the Evening News. “He’s a fantastic football player. He’ll play whenever he goes.
“For me, I think it was a statement from a football club who were under a bit of pressure to sign Scottish players one way or another. And, for me, it never worked out. It was a decision I made at the time because I thought it was right for me. Hindsight is a great thing. If I had the chance to do it again would I? No. But that’s life.
“When I was at Hearts it was the best time of my career, and you always think the grass is greener on the other side. But I’m still hopeful that something can be done to secure him on a longer-term contract.”
But should Souttar agree to join Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s cinch Premiership leaders? The reasons are obvious: direct entry into next season’s Champions League is likely if they stay the course this season, he’s a ready-made replacement for Connor Goldson, who finds his own contract dwindling down, and he can earn an inflated wage packet without having to uproot his family.
On the other hand, the 25-year-old has already shown this season he has mastered the top flight in Scotland. There appears to be no serious contender for his signature from the current English Premier League, but Blackburn Rovers are one interested party and they currently sit second in the Championship table. Furthermore, after a series of devastating injuries which have blighted his five years thus far in Edinburgh, he’ll know there’s no guarantee he can kick the can on the EPL dream further down the road.
“The carrot is always going to be there for Scottish Premiership footballers,” said Ritchie. “They’re always going to look at Celtic and Rangers as a big step forward. Well, maybe not a big step forward, but a step forward from any level they’ve been at. There’s no taking away from the size of club at either team, but it’s about the competition. You’re still going to be playing in the Scottish Premiership every week, and that could be the sticking point for him.
"I think John Souttar is a Premier League player. I know he’s had his injury problems, and there’s a few Championship clubs sniffing around him, but he is good enough to be playing at the highest level.
“He deserves to be a first-choice centre-back for Scotland, 100 per cent. He reminds me a lot of Alan McLaren. McLaren was a top, top defender at Hearts and Souttar is a similar type: he’s a great defender and one who can also play and pass the ball. He’s outstanding. A Rolls Royce of a centre-back."
If Souttar does sign a pre-contract the ball will be in Hearts’ court. Do they keep the player until the summer and lose him for nothing? Or do they cash in and possibly jeopardise their bid to finish in third place?
“With me, Jim Jefferies had to think about the club. With John, [head coach] Robbie Neilson is going to have to think about the togetherness of the team. If John does sign a deal I’d think he would have to move on immediately, and if that’s the case then Hearts would at least get some money,” said Ritchie.
"In an ideal world, he’d sign a new contract, develop for the next six to 12 months and then sign for a EPL club, which would give Hearts a substantial chunk of change. They’ve been loyal to him. But John has to look out for himself and his family, and it’s disappointing when sometimes in football these two things don’t mirror each other.”