Hearts defender John Souttar happy to be called a ‘big lump’

John Souttar lost count of the number of times he was told that he lacked the physicality to be a top-level centre-half.

John Souttar speaks ahead of Hearts' game against Motherwell. Pic: SNS/Ross MacDonald
John Souttar speaks ahead of Hearts' game against Motherwell. Pic: SNS/Ross MacDonald

Too small; not aggressive enough; tries to play too much football.

They were all regular refrains as he made his first steps in the senior game at Dundee United, somewhat losing his way prior to joining Hearts in January 2016.

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How Souttar must have longed for a day when a Premiership manager would describe him as a “big lump”.

That moment came when Hearts defeated Kilmarnock 2-1 little more than a fortnight ago, with Steve Clarke acknowledging the difficulty of finding a way past Souttar, Conor Shaughnessy and Christophe Berra.

“I’d have bit your hand off for that when I was younger, being called that,” he smiled. “It was a back-handed compliment and no offence was taken.”

Informed of Souttar’s reaction, Hearts boss Craig Levein laughed: “Now if I can just get someone to say Christophe [Berra] is like Beckenbauer, we’ll have good balance.”

While a throwaway remark, Clarke’s words vindicate the gruelling work Souttar has put in to return to action at the peak of his powers. After a taxing rehabilitation from a hip injury sustained in October, he barely seems to have missed a step.

It seems the temporary pain of missing out on January’s sunshine training camp in Spain will prove worthwhile in the long run.

As his team-mates grafted in 25-degree temperatures, Souttar was enduring tedious fitness sessions in baltic Edinburgh.

“You always want to go to Spain!” he added. “But the right thing to do was to stay here and get my work done. The winter break was ideal for me this year, in terms of not missing as many games as I probably would have. It worked out well because I could work through the winter break when the boys were off, and do a mini pre-season with them when I was coming back. I was in most days with Mikey Williams, who works as a sports scientist here. He did a lot of work with me and Craig Maitland, the physio, was here as well. They were working on me a lot and working me hard and I came back match fit. Uche was in as well… although I wished it was empty when the big man was here!”

Having cruised through encounters against St Johnstone, Kilmarnock, Livingston and Auchinleck Talbot since his comeback – he was Hearts’ most potent attacking threat in the 0-0 draw with Livi – Souttar should be a shoo-in to take his place in the next Scotland squad.

It was on international duty where he suffered the tear to his hip lining, ruling him out of games against Portugal, Albania and Israel as the year drew to a close.

However, he is still at the forefront of the coaching staff’s thoughts ahead of next month’s Euro 2020 qualifiers against Kazakhstan and San Marino.

He added: “The staff have all phoned me. Peter Grant [assistant manager] and the gaffer [Alex McLeish] and James McFadden [coach] all texted and phoned me when I was injured. They were really supportive and that meant a lot.

“I’d be delighted if I could get back involved in that. There’s a lot of football for Hearts before then so I’ll keep doing what I’m doing for Hearts and see what happens.

“It’s a really young squad at the moment. There’s experience there but it’s the youngest squad we’ve had for a while. It feels like there’s a lot of good players coming through, which can only be good for Scottish football in general.”

While Souttar’s return to fitness has been a fillip for Levein, the build-up to today’s trip to Motherwell has been interrupted by high-profile injuries to Demi Mitchell and Michael Smith, both likely to be out for more than two months.

But after losing Berra, Souttar, Ikpeazu and Steven Naismith to injuries earlier this season, Levein has a sharp sense of perspective and is adamant his squad is now in far better shape to handle the absences.
“I wish I had no injuries, but I feel better about it,” added Levein. “Although we’ve a couple of little things going on just now, we’ll get Marcus [Godinho] back in, Clevid [Dikamona] can come back in. Conor Shaughnessy can come back in, Bobby Burns can play and Jake Mulraney can come in.

“Up front now, [Aidan] Keena’s scoring, [David] Vanecek scored for the reserve side, so I feel better about having injuries.”