John Souttar picture perfect in remarkable Hearts comeback

Isma Goncalves is brought down by East Fifes Ben gordon to earn Hearts late penalty. Picture: SNS.
Isma Goncalves is brought down by East Fifes Ben gordon to earn Hearts late penalty. Picture: SNS.
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Little more than two hours had passed following John Souttar’s comeback against East Fife and the Hearts defender, as they say, “took to social media”. Nothing noteworthy there. That is increasingly a commonplace and, for the most part, relatively bland part of post-match routine in the Internet age.

However, rather than a generic tweet – perhaps followed by the standard proclamation of “we go again” – Souttar’s offering on Instagram afforded a genuine insight to his remarkably swift return from a devastating Achilles injury.

A series of three pictures illustrated his journey from that afternoon at Celtic Park in January to his outing in the torrential rain of Tynecastle Park on Saturday.

However, it was the image sandwiched between those two which truly highlighted the magnitude of his recovery. It showed the lower portion of his right leg in the aftermath of injury, utterly withered and devoid of muscle. To think less than six months have passed since that snap is staggering.

The fact he has been a senior player since the age of 16, it is little wonder Souttar, still only 20, speaks with a maturity well beyond his years when he reflects on an experience he insists has made him fitter, stronger and more hungry than ever.

“The injury made me miss the game more than anything,” said Souttar, pictured. “I love football. I’m obsessed with it. So to get that taken away gives you a bit more hunger and desire to come back a better player, which hopefully I’ll do.

“If you feel sorry for yourself, it is going to affect everything. You need to be mentally strong. I’ve gone through a lot of stuff in my career. I’m only 20 and I’ve been through quite a lot that’s going to make me mentally strong. That was another test and I’m back five and a half months after an Achilles rupture.

“I would hope I’m stronger than before. I was in the gym every day for five months! I’ve worked my balls off. I’ve worked as hard as I possibly can every day.

“I just looked on it as a positive to get stronger and more powerful. I’ve worked as hard as I possibly can, both medically and physically to get back.”

While 45 minutes in a routine 3-0 win over the depleted Fifers was a modest spectacle, it was clearly a watershed moment for Souttar, declaring “I didn’t think I would be anywhere near back at this stage so to be back on the pitch was just amazing”.

It came less than 48 hours after one of his closest friends, Andrew Robertson, enjoyed a life-changing event of his own, joining Liverpool for £8 million.

The career trajectory of his former Dundee United team-mate – rejected and overlooked as a youngster – has come as no surprise to Souttar, who is seeking to fulfil the prophecy on Saturday of Hearts assistant coach Austin MacPhee, who declared him destined “for the top”.

“Andy’s a top player. It was never in doubt where he was going to go,” smiled Souttar. “I’m sure he will go on to be a massive hit at Liverpool.

“I spoke to him on Friday and he was on cloud nine. He has signed for one of the biggest clubs in Europe. It’s an amazing time. I look forward to going down and seeing him.”

Souttar could have been forgiven for easing himself into his first senior appearance since January. Instead, he was immediately the focal point of everything they did against East Fife, starting every attack from the back, stepping into midfield and effectively acting as the side’s playmaker. Ian Cathro has his libero back.

It took 22 minutes for Souttar to make his mark, delivering a sumptuous chipped pass to the back post to find Kyle Lafferty, who opened the scoring with a deft header.

By that point, Michael Smith had already struck the post and compatriot Lafferty had miscued a diving header wide from point-blank range.

East Fife keeper Ryan Goodfellow made excellent saves to deny Jamie Walker and Isma Goncalves before, in the second period, the visitors threatened to stun the men in maroon amid a Gorgie monsoon. Paul Willis forced two sharp saves from Jack Hamilton, who looked nervous from crosses but excelled in his shot-stopping.

Captain Christophe Berra eased any nerves when he met a Malaury Martin corner and powered home his first goal for Hearts since January 2008.

Lafferty, who later conceded on Twitter he “should have the match ball home with me” did claim his third goal in two appearances by slotting a late penalty beyond Goodfellow after Goncalves had been fouled by Ben Gordon, who was dismissed for the 
indiscretion.