John Souttar doesn’t want to be compared to anyone else, he wants to become a better version of himself.
A ball-playing defender, who has been criticised at times for not simply clearing his lines, he recognises it is about finding the right balance and is keen to use this season to illustrate how much his individual improvement is an ongoing project.
Still just 19, he says his transfer to Hearts jettisoned him from his comfort zone, leaving his family and his home from home at Dundee United to strike out on his own. Admitting that took some getting used to, he is at ease in his new environment. Back at centre-half after being utilised as a defensive midfielder during the latter part of his time on Tayside, he claims he is maturing as a player and a person.
“I know at times I have overplayed, which is something a lot of young centre halves do,” Souttar said. “But you don’t want to come in at 19 years old and be the finished article. I am sure a lot of big centre halves have made errors down the line. It’s about learning. But first and foremost I am a defender and I want to keep goals out of the net. Anything that comes on top of that is a bonus.”
The demands on modern defenders has evolved and finesse with the football and quality distribution is expected along with the no-nonsense, better-safe-than-sorry, robustness of old. Guys like England international John Stones are highly sought-after as “ball-playing centre halves” and they serve as role models for Souttar.
“I wouldn’t want to compare myself to someone like that,” he said. “But the best in the business can do the basics and the other stuff. I want to be able do both. That comes with experience. Look at John Terry. He’s good on the ball but first and foremost he is a defender. And all of the top defenders are first and foremost defenders. That’s what the gaffer has drilled into me. Sometimes when I was younger I would come out with the ball and pass it and think that was all I needed to do. There’s a lot more to it than that.
“As I get physically stronger I am working my hardest behind the scenes to make myself a better player. When I was at United, I wasn’t physically developed and that wasn’t United’s fault, that was my fault too.
“But since coming here I have maybe seen the light and I have enjoyed it and the gaffer has taken me onto the pitch to work on my heading, he has shown me video clips about how he wants me to defend. It’s defend first.”
This afternoon Souttar will walk out to face Celtic for both teams’ first game of the new campaign, but despite the fact that the last meeting between the sides in Gorgie left the Hearts defender red-faced and being trolled on Twitter after Leigh Griffiths nutmegged him en route to goal in a convincing Celtic win, the centre-half will not be lugging any regrets or fears onto the pitch with him.
“I can’t even remember that game to be honest,” he said. “I concentrate on the now, I don’t look too far ahead or too far behind. I have learned from my short career in football that there’s no point looking back, it’s done. And if you look too far into the future you can get blurry vision.
“My mentality is more I will look at things in the now and that’s quite a strong thing mentally, I think. A lot of people would hide and not take it and crumble in front of a big crowd at Tynecastle. But when you do make mistakes it shows your character if you go and take the ball again.”
And he is happy to kick off the new campaign against the champions. “To be put in with a team like Celtic is good and the chance to test ourselves is exciting,” he added. “Griffiths is one of the best strikers around at the moment, he’s a handful. And I always want to test myself against the best, so it will be good.”