Craig Levein’s hidden work at Hearts ready to bear fruit, insists John Souttar

Hearts' 16-year-old Aaron Hickey was superb in the Scottish Cup final.
Hearts' 16-year-old Aaron Hickey was superb in the Scottish Cup final.
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Visionaries are often little appreciated in their own time. This might be how it has to be for Craig Levein.

He failed to lead Hearts to a trophy against Celtic on Saturday but the manager’s careful nurturing of young talent is paving the way for future success.

This is the view of defender John Souttar at least. Making life more difficult for Levein is that such work is not performed in front of several thousand Hearts supporters.

Instead, it continues behind closed doors. It is only when Levein opts to blood youngsters in games that the masses gain glimpses of the positive work being achieved at Riccarton, the club’s HQ.

After Aaron Hickey’s superb performance at left-back in Saturday’s final, Souttar has urged Hearts supporters to embrace the future despite the anguish of defeat.

The Tynecastle side lost to a winner from Odsonne Edouard scored just eight minutes before the end. The number of fans who stayed to applaud Hearts at the final whistle suggested many have already adopted Souttar’s way of thinking.

A team that included 16-year-old Hickey matched Cetlic for long spells. Two other teenagers, Harry Cochrane and Bobby Burns, were on the bench.

There are others, too, set to break through next season as what Souttar described as “hidden work” bears fruition at the club.

Connor Smith and Andy Irving started alongside Hickey when Hearts lost to Celtic in their last league outing of the season six days prior to the cup-final defeat.

“Hickey coming into the team has given the fans a taste of what is to come,” he said. “There are a lot of boys like that in the background.

“You could see how comfortable he was on the ball, how he took it in his stride, and there are a lot of boys with good futures at the club. Hickey was superb, but he is not the only one.

“A lot of work has gone on at the club and it will reap the rewards very soon. There are a lot of good players.

A debutant himself at just 16 years old when he stepped in at right-back for Dundee United at Aberdeen, pictured, Souttar is a good person to assess Hearts’ strength in this department.

“Hickey is just a start,” he said. “The gaffer and the backroom staff have done a lot of work on the academy and you can see the quality coming through.

“For him to put in a performance like that in the Scottish Cup final is great for the club.”

The young talent should grant Levein some clemency after an inconsistent season. A strong start gave way to a stuttering finish amid a raft of injuries, including to Souttar.

A sixth-place finish was not what was expected after the Tynecastle side reached the top of the table in October but the Scottish Cup final appearance did give the fans something to cheer.

Fears that Hearts might slump to heavy defeat at Hampden were not borne out and they handed Celtic a tough test. The performance silenced some grumbles in the stands and means Levein has won back some favour.

Souttar contends it might be several years before he is fully appreciated. “For me, personally, the gaffer has been unbelievable,” the 22-year-old said.

“You can see all he has done for the club. I have said it a million times but I think we have been unlucky this season. We have reached a semi-final and a final.

“It’s easy to criticise the gaffer,” he added. “He’s the man who gets it but there is a lot of work that goes unseen. It won’t be seen until a few years down the line.

“People will look back and realise that is what was building, because it’s not just on the pitch – it’s day-to-day stuff behind the scenes.

“There is also this conception about the gaffer that he likes long balls,” he added. “He is the opposite. He likes footballers, people playing.

“The youth boys coming through are all comfortable on the ball. Next year you will see more of that coming through.”

Having made his full international debut as well as suffering a red card for his country, played in his first cup final and been linked with a move to Rangers, Souttar can look back at an eventful 2018-19 season – and that is despite missing a large chunk of it because of injury.

And it’s not over yet. He is set to be included in Steve Clarke’s first Scotland squad later today for next month’s Euro 2020 qualifying games against Cyprus and Belgium.

Souttar has not played for Scotland since picking up that red card in a 2-1 defeat to Israel in Haifa in October.

“It has been a long season,” said Souttar. “Personally, it has been weird as well with all that I’ve crammed in.

“Obviously the (Scotland) squad gets announced… so fingers crossed I’ll be involved.

“It would mean a shorter time off, but there is nothing better than being involved without your country. I would gladly take that if I could be involved. I’m sure the new manager will be good for the nation.”