The arduous task of replacing John Souttar in Hearts' defence
First tangerine, then maroon, now blue. John Souttar nailed his colours to the mast in January by signing a long-term Rangers contract. He wants to achieve major honours but what does he leave behind at Tynecastle Park?
The Dundee United youth academy graduate developed into an international centre-back with Hearts and, at 25, will continue his career at Ibrox. Some fans there consider him an upgrade on the potentially-outgoing Connor Goldson, the lure of trophies and possible Champions League nights doubtless influencing the decision.
The problem for Hearts is how to replace him. Souttar’s exit creates a sizeable central-defensive void with no obvious candidate to slot in. Manager Robbie Neilson and sporting director Joe Savage have a list of prospective replacements who they feel might handle the daunting task of filling that No.4 shirt.
Souttar cost the Edinburgh club just £120,000 when he arrived from United as a teenager in February 2016. Back then, Neilson was in his first spell as Hearts manager and knew exactly what he was buying – potential.
The fact that promise was fully realised despite three ruptured Achilles tendons during the ensuing six and a bit years says much about Souttar’s resilience, mentality and strength of character. Those attributes allied to his physical and technical ones attracted Rangers and umpteen other suitors.
Blackburn Rovers and Sheffield United led a series of English clubs who tried to tempt the player south once he entered the final six months of his Hearts contract. The interest became so extensive that Souttar and his representatives had to whittle down the list and select who they would open talks with.
After chats with officials from Ewood Park and Bramall Lane, he chose to stay in Scotland with Rangers. His final appearance in maroon was Saturday’s Scottish Cup final against his new employers and he delivered the kind of performance which makes his absence all the more vexing for Hearts.
It seemed at one point that Souttar and goalkeeper Craig Gordon were both willing and able to defy Rangers by themselves. Headers, block tackles, interceptions and sliding challenges were one-after-another for the centre-back as pressure on Hearts’ goal intensified. On the rare occasion he was beaten, Gordon’s brilliance was at hand.
Ultimately, the Glasgow club had enough firepower to score twice in extra-time through substitutes Ryan Jack and Scott Wright. They carried the trophy with them out of Hampden and will welcome Souttar in time for pre-season training next month.
The player was named in the Scotland squad on Monday after that cup final display, which is his only start since March 5 due to an ankle injury. That underlines his value at both club and international level.
Hearts must move on quickly with an unprecedented run of European group-stage matches set to begin this August. As well as replacing Souttar, they need a striker, a winger, a left-back and another creative midfielder. That’s minimum.
The former Doncaster Rovers player Joe Wright is one defender they are interested in. However, he can’t be regarded as a ready-made Souttar replacement having been absent through injury for the last year.
The 27-year-old damaged his knee and ankle in Rovers’ final match of the 2020/21 campaign having verbally agreed a move to Hearts at the time. That put his future in jeopardy and so far his recovery has lasted 12 months. Neilson and Savage gave him an open invitation to train at Riccarton whenever he feels ready.
In time, Wright may evolve into a suitable successor to Souttar but no-one could predict that with any degree of certainty. For now, Hearts will look to recruit another defender who can step immediately into the team for next season. They have scouted a number of English-based centre-backs as well as a few from abroad.
Doncaster agreed to help Wright fund his rehabilitation when injury struck last year despite his contract expiring at the Keepmoat Stadium. The intervening 12 months have been an arduous experience for the player as he tries to rebuild his career.
The Rovers manager Gary McSheffrey said earlier this year that he was hopeful Wright would manage a competitive appearance for someone before the campaign finished.
“He’s wasn’t in with us for a while because he’s only in time to time with each milestone in his rehab,” explained McSheffrey during an interview with the Doncaster Free Press. “With Covid getting a bit more serious, he just stayed away.
“Joe is more than welcome to keep doing what he needs to do with us. We’ll honour his rehab. Hopefully he can get fit and he can add something to a football club at some point for a certain amount of games this season.”
That didn’t transpire so Hearts must wait to learn what stage Wright has reached by the time pre-season training commences at Riccarton on June 21. Finding the next No.4 will be one of their most important pieces of summer business.
The rest of their defence is in strong shape with goalkeeper Craig Gordon appearing to defy the ageing process behind stalwarts like Craig Halkett and Stephen Kingsley. Toby Sibbick, signed from Barnsley in January, is viewed as a younger centre-back who will develop into an established first-team regular over time.
Right wing-back Nathaniel Atkinson has adapted to Scottish football quickly and the experienced Michael Smith should be fully fit for pre-season starting.
On the left side, Hearts would be interested in another loan for Alex Cochrane if Brighton renew his contract this summer. If not, they could potentially make a move to sign the young Englishman permanently.
As a defender in his playing days, Neilson places enormous value on a strong and stable back line. That will be evermore necessary when Hearts travel away from home in European competition next season.
Souttar will hope to be in the Champions League with Rangers by then. Whoever fills his shirt in Gorgie must be ready to stand up and be counted.