John Souttar believes that Hearts are on the up and cites that as one reason why he has agreed to a contract extension that will keep him at the club until 2022.
The Scotland defender signed the new deal yesterday and says that it was an easy decision given how much he has improved as a player since joining the Tynecastle club and while he is grateful for the ongoing education, just as important was the club’s ambition, which lives up to his own.
“I enjoy it here, I really like working under the gaffer,” he said. “He has been great for me in terms of playing me and giving me lots of opportunities and I’ve learned so much from playing alongside Christophe [Berra, captain and fellow defender].
“When he first came in I played that whole season in a back three alongside him and Aaron Hughes and that was amazing for my development. The gaffer was a centre-half as well and I am still learning from him, so it’s good.”
Since joining the club midway through the 2015-16 season, the 22-year-old has made almost 100 appearances, an impressive tally that would be even higher had it not been for two serious injuries. But back in the team after the latest setback, he was a key contributor in Saturday’s defeat of St Johnstone, not only helping the team to a clean sheet but also weighing in with a superb pass for the opening goal.
“I like the whole club, how it’s run, it’s a real family club,” he added. “They took me here when I was going through a bad time in my career so I owe them as well.”
Just as important is the club’s vision for the remainder of the season and beyond.
“It is an ambitious club. They don’t just want to stay in mid-table. We all want to push for Europe,” he said.
Getting players such as Souttar back to full fitness will aid those efforts this term, according to manager Craig Levein, who believes that tying Souttar, and other influential players, to the club long term will also provide them with the solid foundation needed to push on even further.
Michael Smith and Berra have also commited themselves for the foreseeable future and negotiations are ongoing to secure others.
“I might be old-fashioned but I believe that the spine of the team is really important,” said the Gorgie boss. “I believe it’s important that we get the key players in the team signed on longer-term contracts and then we can add around about that. But that stability is really important.
“When I took the job again, my biggest thing was getting us in a position where we were stable and continually up at the top end of the table and challenging. This is part of that and hopefully the other work that’s been going on will bear fruit and we can put the two things together.
“Then hopefully we’ll have the right mix for consistently challenging at the top end of the table.”
Leading the league for much of the early part of the season, having come through a storm of injuries, the fact that Souttar is the latest player to return to the first team and is soon to be joined by Uche Ikpeazu and Peter Haring, has given the Hearts manager a belief that they can see out the season in the same kind of form and ensure they have a major say in the top league positions as well as the Scottish Cup.
Souttar agrees and says they can prove that to people by replicating the outcome of their first trip to Rugby Park when they head back to Ayrshire tonight to take on this year’s star turn, Kilmarnock.
“Definitely. I think the start of the season gave everyone a taste of what we can do,” said the playmaking defender. “and I think, once we get everyone back fit, it will feel like the start of the season again.
“I think we could do something good this season. But it’s all right saying it, you still need to perform. I know Kilmarnock are flying but it’s a great chance for us.
“We went there at the start of the season and won 1-0. So it’s doable. I think only us and Aberdeen have gone to Rugby Park and won in the league. So you take a positive from that.
“If we can go there and get a positive result, it would really set us up for the second half of the season.”