Hearts manager Robbie Neilson reacts to booing of Rangers-bound John Souttar as duo singled out for praise

Hearts boss Robbie Neilson has praised John Souttar’s mental strength after his defender was subjected to a difficult night in front of a home crowd angered by his decision to sign a pre-contract deal with Premiership rivals Rangers.

Hearts manager Robbie Neilson issues orders from the sidelines.
Hearts manager Robbie Neilson issues orders from the sidelines.

Booed with every touch of the ball, the 25-year-old shut it out to turn in a solid performance, which is why he was installed as part of the team according to his gaffer, who said the most important thing was solidifying the team’s position in third place.

“John is a mentally strong character,” said Neilson. “He’s come back from three career threatening injuries. I only know a few people who have come back from a single Achilles rupture never mind three.

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“You know he’s very strong mentally, he can blank out the background noise and get on with the game. I thought he played very well.

Hearts' Josh Ginnelly, left, celebrates making it 2-0 with John Souttar.

“I’ve said all along the club is bigger than any individual player, coach or manager. The focus has to be on progressing the club forward, getting the three points, European qualification, winning cups.

“That has to be the end goal for us all.

“Whenever John goes, if it’s the end of the season, there is always going to be that in the background.

“But as a club we have to focus on what’s best for the club and what’s best for the club is winning football matches and putting the best team out we can to win those matches.

Ginnelly was in good form in final third.

“Because the more we win, the more successful we can be. We can get into Europe and the club can push on from there.

“But, you pay your money, you come and, to an extent, you can say what you want. To an extent.

“John understands the situation. We understand it. But I keep coming back to it being about the football club moving forward.

"At this moment in time what’s best is that we put our best players on the pitch to win games and take us forward. What a massive achievement it would be to get promoted from the Championship and qualify for Europe in the first year.”

It was a winning return from the winter break as the influential Barrie McKay and makeshift striker Josh Ginnelly combined. The former provided the assist and the latter weighed in with two clinical finishes, just a minute into the second half and then again in the 75th minute.

“I was delighted,” continued Neilson. “You are always unsure where you’ll be after three weeks off and whether it will be a slow start.

“The pressure was on as we were expected to win so I was pleased we managed to do that.

“St Johnstone had a couple of chances and we had a penalty claim. There are still areas to work on but once we got the goal we were quite comfortable.

“I thought McKay and Ginnelly did very well. We spoke about the movement at half time, to get Ginnelly inside to use his pace because he can be a threat in that area.

“I was delighted with the two of them.”

They took Ginnelly’s goal tally for the season to third and filled the void left by top scorer Liam Boyce, who was on the bench but not deemed ready for a start after his recent ankle injury. Ben Woodburn was also missing through illness.

The performance and result allied with the fact that their nearest rivals for third all dropped points, ensured that it was a good night, though.

“They are the best nights,” he added, “when you come in after the game and teams have dropped points here and there and you get yourself a bit further up.

“We are eight clear in third place. The aim for us now has to be up the way. We are nine behind Celtic. We’ve got them here in the next league game and a chance to get a wee bit closer again.

“If we can move up the way to these top teams then we don’t need to worry about what’s behind us.”

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