Despite comments attributed to him suggesting otherwise, John Souttar knew the time had come to leave Dundee United. But he now realises he could not have cut it any finer when severing ties with the club who spotted him as an eight-year-old.
The clock was firmly against Souttar when Hearts finally had a bid accepted. So, too, was the weather. Souttar, now 19, was informed of the Tynecastle club’s continued interest on the morning of transfer deadline day. But he was also told that United chairman Stephen Thompson had little intention of letting him go.
Souttar was reconciling himself to staying at United, a minority of whose fans had begun to take exception to him for reasons that include a perceived languidness during games. It is ironic then that Souttar had to show such acceleration in order to seal his move to Hearts, for whom he is in line to make a debut tonight against Ross County.
“It was crazy,” Souttar recalled yesterday. “It was so last-minute. I came in for training at United and Mixu pulled me in. He said: ‘There have been a few bids from Hearts but it’s not happening. The chairman doesn’t want to let you go’.”
Paatelainen advised him to get his mind on the weekend’s game against Partick Thistle. “You’ll be playing,” he added.
Later that afternoon Souttar went to the cinema to see the roundly ridiculed new Robert De Niro vehicle, Dirty Grandpa. “It was horrendous,” noted Souttar in accord with the critics. “My phone goes in the cinema and it’s basically: ‘Get to Edinburgh’.” There was one complication. Storm Henry was doing its worst, with little regard for easing the path for talented footballers with a midnight transfer deadline to meet. The Forth Road Bridge was shut for a spell to vehicles. But fortunately the wind relented as Souttar approached.
“We got to the bridge and it was open,” he recalled. “If it was closed I’d probably have struggled to get there on time. We got there quite late and Hearts were doing a few deals that day and were trying to get them through. Thankfully mine got done at two minutes to 12 so it was pretty hectic.”
Just a few minutes earlier, Souttar was still not sure the move would go through. He was already aware that Jordan McGhee’s proposed loan move from Hearts to Middlesbrough had collapsed, although the English transfer window had closed an hour earlier than in Scotland.
“About five minutes to 12, I was like: ‘This is taking a while’,” he said. “Jordan was there as well and his move fell through. I thought it wasn’t going to happen for a minute.
“I had my heart set on going to Hearts so I would’ve been gutted if it hadn’t gone through,” he added. “It was definitely the right time to leave for a fresh challenge. I’d been there since I was eight so I owe a lot to Dundee United. I needed to leave. I don’t like seeing the club where it is just now but I think it was the right time to leave, get a fresh challenge and a fresh start.”
He claims the jeers from a frustrated United support was not a factor in his wish to depart. Indeed, he even understands why the fans felt so anguished.
“Fans pay their money so it’s up to them what they say,” he said. “They booed in a few games but I think I’m big enough to take that on the chin. The higher you go, it’s going to happen.
“I don’t have a bad word to say about the fans,” he added. “A lot of things happened, things got released that weren’t necessarily true. As a player, you don’t really have a voice to back yourself up. Fans hear one thing and I can completely understand where they’re coming from.
“We’re footballers and we’re where they [fans] want to be. I can see where their frustrations came from. We were bottom of the league so it was completely understandable.”
There was, however, clearly some personal frustration at United. Souttar has already been impressed with how much emphasis is placed on physical conditioning at Hearts. “I spoke to a few of the boys before I came here and they told me the sort of stuff they do, like triple sessions,” he said. “The other day I did about four sessions. In the long run it’s only going to benefit me.”
Was that different to United? “Erm, yeah,” he said. But that was then and this is now. He is relishing the news that head coach Robbie Neilson plans to employ him principally at centre-half, something that is likely to happen for the first time tonight owing to suspension and injury.
“Obviously it affects you when you’re a young player,” he said, with reference to being moved around so much at United, where he was used latterly in the centre of midfield. “But you don’t see many young players playing centre-half week in and week out.
“It’s a tough position to play in. I played there under Jackie McNamara. He put his faith in me. I see myself as a centre-half.” Fortunately for Souttar, so do Hearts.