From a young age, John Souttar has always known that earning a Scotland cap is the stuff of dreams.
While many of the current generation grew up on a diet of club football rather than inspirational international moments, with a steady stream of Champions League fixtures, or live Premier League or Premiership matches to whet the appetite compared to old, virtually unrelatable footage of Scotland at a major finals, his family made sure he recognised the honour it would be for him to pull on the dark blue shirt of his country.
He has now done that several times, in various age groups, making his way through the Under-17 and Under-19 ranks before he was handed his first Under-21 cap in September last year. Since then he has added another five at that level.
While not all have gone to plan – a red card and a defeat by Ukraine in midweek have spoiled Scotland’s hopes of qualifying for Euros in 2017 and prompted manager Ricky Sbragia to resign – the Hearts defender said he has learned from every appearance and is more determined than ever to fulfil the dream of stepping up to the full team and, one day, representing the country on a major stage.
A centre-back in a country where there is no great strength or depth in that department, he has already been earmarked for that promotion. In many minds, it is just a matter of when.
Souttar isn’t one of those who have looked that far ahead. The 19-year-old prefers to focus on what he can do now to ensure that if and when his chance does come, he will be ready.
“When you are growing up, you want to play for your country, especially where I’m from as a boy,” he said. “In the north-east, Scotland is massive. That’s the big thing, playing for Scotland. It was drilled into me from a young age, that it was the ultimate honour. My dad, the whole family, they’re very big on that.
“So I know what it means to them that I’m playing for Scotland. It’s a great honour.
“My dad has been to a fair few Scotland games with his mates, travelling down to see them. So I know what it means to him. It is bigger than any club rivalry in the area because, where I am, there isn’t a big club. So, growing up, you were a Scotland fan first.”
From kicking a ball about in his village of Luthermuir, Aberdeenshire, he moved on to Brechin City Youths, where he was coached by his dad, Jack. From there he moved to Dundee United before joining Hearts in February. There he is surrounded by international players, who act as mentors as well as an inspiration.
“You need to be consistently doing well to get the call-up, so I’ll concentrate on doing a job for Hearts,” he said, looking forward to this afternoon’s visit to Tynecastle by Hamilton Academical. “I feel like I’ve developed a lot, learned a lot, since joining Hearts. The gaffer has helped massively. The same goes for players like Igor Rossi. There is a good mentality in this team. Don Cowie, people like that, we’ve got guys with experience, good professionals. The young boys, we all look up to them and learn from them.
“If you look at any centre-half at the top, they are all physical beasts, so strong. If that’s where you want to be, you need to develop. If I ever want to be a full international, I have to work on that. It’s not about being big and bulky, just physically strong. I enjoy watching all international central defenders, learning from what they do.”
One of the latest men to earn a competitive start in Gordon Strachan’s team is team-mate Callum Paterson, pictured left, which pleases Souttar. “We’re all delighted for him. He’s worked so hard and the fact that he was picked showed that, if you work hard, it won’t go unnoticed.
“It’s a big boost for everyone to see a Hearts player win a Scotland cap, because it’s been a few years since that happened. It’s massive and let’s hope there can be a few more, as well, because we’ve already had Tony [Watt] and Jack [Hamilton] in the squad now.
“Seeing Callum play on Sunday was definitely an inspiration. But we’ve got to build on it. There is no point in just saying it’s brilliant to have one of ours playing for Scotland – you want more of our players in the team. If everyone keeps doing well, hopefully there are more who can reach that level.”