JOHN SUTTON strides purposefully out of the Riccarton dressing room, the No. 9 emblazoned across the front of his Hearts training kit like a badge of honour. He has just been in the gym working out. Training isn’t due to start for another 20 minutes. He stands, hands behind his back with chest puffed out. It’s like he’s making a declaration of intent.
Eleven months ago, Sutton was an unused substitute as Hearts required a late Stephen Elliott equaliser to avoid defeat against Inverness. He couldn’t get in Paulo Sergio’s team, was surplus to requirements and apparently facing a bleak future just two months after arriving at Tynecastle on a three-year contract. He even had to move to Australia on loan to get a game. As the Highland club prepare to visit Tynecastle tomorrow, it is a notably different scenario for Sutton. He is a man on a mission – a mission to ensure he cannot be dislodged as Hearts’ principal striker. He has waited a year to consider himself first choice and it feels damn good. Sergio has gone, replaced by John McGlynn, who has built his attack around Sutton – his only experienced forward. Another striker may arrive before the transfer window closes but, judging by the Englishman’s confident demeanour, he will take some shifting.
“That’s football, generally. One week things are going well and the next week they’re going badly,” said Sutton, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “That’s probably a lesson for me this year. Things have got off to a reasonable start, but this game can turn again very quickly. Pre-season went well for me, as has the start of the season, but you can’t ever take your foot off the gas. There’s still competition for places.”
Four goals in six appearances since the start of pre-season indicate the rich vein of form Sutton is enjoying. He is thriving on the faith of his manager, quite a contrast to his peripheral existence this time last year. “Paulo explained to me that he thought I was a decent enough player, but for the shape and style he wanted for the team, he wasn’t going to include me a lot of the time. Fair enough, you just get on with things,” said Sutton.
“It wasn’t a definite thing, he changed it round some weeks and played it slightly differently. It’s a frustrating thing because you always want to play. You see results aren’t going too well and you’re still not getting a game, then you have to ask yourself a few questions. I have to say the team did really well last year by winning the Scottish Cup, so hats off to them for that. I signed for Hearts for three years and all that’s on my mind, until someone tells me otherwise, is to do really well for the club and be successful here. I was aware it would be a clean slate for everyone when the manager changed and that probably wasn’t a bad thing from my point of view. All you can do as a football player is make sure you come back in decent shape and give it your best shot. In that sense, it doesn’t matter who the manager is.
“Hearts is a great club to play for, you get great support here and you see last season how well the boys did winning the cup. I missed out on that so I just hope I get the chance to do something similar this year.
“You always want to play for the first team, and a first team that is doing well. We’ve got off to a reasonable start to the season. We didn’t play too well last week, albeit we got a point, so now we’re looking for three tomorrow. That would give us more momentum and establish us in the top half of the table.” In fact, it could establish Hearts at the very top of the Scottish Premier League three weeks into the new campaign. Celtic and Dundee United have played one game less, however. “Tomorrow becomes a big game now because we’ve got to get back to the performances we put in pre-season and against St Johnstone. Four points out of six isn’t bad but a slip up tomorrow puts a totally different perspective on things. We’re playing a very good Inverness team, so we need to be on top form to get three points and stay up at the top of the table.”
David Templeton is suspended for Hearts, so Sutton can expect to be flanked by Arvydas Novikovas and Andy Driver in McGlynn’s favoured 4-3-3 formation. “The team probably played quite a similar formation last year,” he said. “It’s great when you’ve got Temps and Driver either side of you and Arvy coming off the bench. You know there will be a lot of crosses into the box in most games and the midfield boys are working hard behind us to get forward and support us.”
At the apex of that system is the traditional No.9. This year that jersey belongs to John Sutton, and he won’t be relinquishing it easily.