Like many others stymied by disobliging scheduling, John Souttar spent Saturday evening squinting at a small mobile phone screen. A wedding that clashes with the Champions League final is bad enough.
When it’s a Champions League final in which one of your best mates is playing an integral part, protocol gets flung out the window. Souttar probably did not have to apologise to the groom, fellow footballer Jack Hamilton. There’s a good chance the Dundee and former Hearts goalkeeper was trying to manoeuvre into position himself to catch a glimpse of the game amid the throng.
“Jack didn’t have a screen up at his wedding so a few of us were crowding around,” recalled Souttar. “A few of the boys were there.”
One of “the boys” was not. He was pacing up and down the left flank of the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in the searing heat. Andy Robertson was helping Liverpool win the European Cup against Spurs, becoming the first Scot since Paul Lambert with Borussia Dortmund in 1997 to feature in the winning side in the final.
It’s the kind of dream you might have playing kickabout in the back garden – or down at Dundee’s Riverside Drive pitches, which passed as the back garden for four young starlets at Dundee United sharing a flat in the city’s west end.
A photograph was doing the rounds again on Twitter yesterday and simply re-emphasised where talent combined with hard work and passion and a bit of good fortune can lead. Robertson is pictured crouching in team group style with three others – next to him in the front row is Souttar, while in the back-row Joe McGovern, the former United goalkeeper, is standing next to Ryan Gauld.
There’s not a stitch of United training gear on any of them. Souttar is wearing a Spain top, Gauld a Barcelona top – as befits someone dubbed the Mini-Messi in his time at Tannadice – while Robertson seems to be wearing a Dungeons & Dragons themed T-shirt along with goalie gloves. There’s a portable set of goals helping frame the picture behind them. As a portrait of football enthusiasm, it’s almost infectious. And it’s not as if they were simply kids.
Robertson joined Dundee United in 2013 so that’s as far back as it can date. He is 25-years-old now which means when the photo was taken he must have been 18, possibly 19. He had already started his senior career at Queen’s Park. And yet there he is with his Dundee United mates, three of whom were close to be becoming regulars, if they were not already, playing football for the fun of it at Riverside Drive, where they were probably indistinguishable from the students who have kickabouts there.
“I think that sums up his attitude,” said Souttar. “We were really young at the time and we just used to play football all the time. We used to go down the local park and play with the boys from our digs on a day off, play 4 v 4 and just enjoy it. That’s just what he’s like, he loves the game, is so down to earth, works hard and takes everything in his stride. I think he had goalie gloves on in that picture because we all used to take turns in goals.”
According to Souttar, the beauty of playing for United at the time is that they were encouraged by manager Jackie McNamara to play as if they were down at Riverside being watched by passers-by, if anyone at all. “I think we just got the freedom to play, even if we made mistakes,” he said. “We were so young and, although a lot of us went on to do well. It was just like playing with your mates. It was a great atmosphere.
“It was just an enjoyable period, when we were given the freedom to play, to go and express ourselves. A lot of young players don’t get that chance. But we stayed in the team the whole season, got game after game, and it was an enjoyable time. Jackie was good at that. He kept me in the team a long time. He gave us all the freedom to play, go and play and make mistakes. Andy just played without fear the whole time. He still does the exact same now.”
“You can’t help but think back to where he was,” he added. “But look at the season he’s had. He was in the PFA team of the year, so it wasn’t a shock [to see him winning the Champions League]. You just have to enjoy watching him play. He’s still the same guy he was, exactly the same. And that’s probably why he’s done so well.
“He’s down to earth, doesn’t get carried away with himself and is probably an example for every other player. To get to that level, do what he does.”
Souttar has sent his pal a text but might have to wait until seeing him in person to get a reply. Robertson joins up with Souttar and the rest of the Scotland squad later this week for the forthcoming qualifiers with Cyprus and Belgium. “I’ve just sent him congratulations since Saturday,” said the Hearts defender. “I’m sure he’s got about a million messages!”