How John Souttar overshadowed Ianis Hagi and James Tavernier and announced himself as a Rangers player in win over Hibs
It is a question which has been uttered by so many, so often over the years. The times at Tynecastle Park when he overcame injury after injury, displaying a resilience and a mental strength to return to the Hearts starting XI, never looking like he had been away. He’s done it already at Ibrox. An awkward start to life in blue against Livingston's Joel Nouble. Then came difficulties, both physically and personally. The 26-year-old would no doubt have been written off by some, perhaps many. Not that he would have cared. He's been in the position before. Head down, hard work, come back stronger.
Against Hibs, he looked like he had played at the back for Rangers for years. The booming pass to get the ball out to Todd Cantwell who subsequently won the foul which brought the opening goal. The reading of the game. Dominance in the air and in physical battles, qualities which improved immeasurably during his final season in Gorgie. The confidence and assuredness defending one v one with space in behind, of defending out wide as if playing both centre-back and full-back.
‘Excellent football player’
“Outstanding” is how Michael Beale described his performance. The Rangers boss revealed Connor Goldson could miss the start of the next season and that signings were imminent. He already has a ready-mate replacement for Goldson in the building. It is clear he trusts Souttar, who was a reassuring presence next to Leon King, back in the starting line-up, Beale noting he was happy for the pair to defend two-v-two against Elie Youan and Kevin Nisbet.
Hibs did look to utilise Youan's pace in the space behind Tavernier. It was where they got their most joy in the first half but they only managed to create one decent opening from it. So often Souttar, who had hit the bar with a header early on, was there to extinguish the fire before it got out of control.
“I think John is an excellent football player and the most important thing for him now is he gets a good off-season and comes back strong," Beale said. “He’s not been able to have a good, solid pre-season for a while.”
Imagine John Souttar without injuries? He’d be in the Premier League and have many, many more than his six national team caps. His performance far overshadowed anything Hibs did in what was a flat afternoon, on the pitch and in the stands, lacking the necessary ambition, energy, chutzpah despite Paul Hanlon’s late consolation. Souttar overshadowed Ianis Hagi who scored his first goal in 16th months following a nightmare spell on the sidelines. And he even managed to overshadow James Tavernier on a landmark day at the ground where it all started.
The Tavernier journey
July 25, 2015. A journey which has now seen Tavernier amass four hundred appearances. One hundred and one goals. That one being the opener on the left-hand side of the Hibs box in front of the Famous Five Stand, only a matter of yards away from his very first for the club on that day seven years and nine months ago.
Back then it was very different to what it is now. Then it was the Petrofac Training Cup, the teams heading into their second season in the Scottish Championship. Tavernier was one of a number of summer arrivals under new manager Mark Warburton. Lewis Stevenson was in the Hibs XI, after all there are some things which just do not change. Andy Halliday was a decoy. Barrie McKay an onlooker. Tavernier stepped up and bent the ball up and over the wall, past Mark Oxley. An equaliser in a game the visitors would eventually win 6-2.
Painful Scotland memories
Back to the present day, the anniversary of the Scottish Cup final of the 2015/16 season between these sides. Now Rangers captain, Tavernier told Hagi to “trust me" as he stood over the set-piece. Those were words which really didn’t need to be said, nor with the accompanying knowing look. If there is one thing we have learned across the near eight years, the previous 399 games and 100 goals, the Englishman is to be trusted when it comes to set pieces. The antithesis of Roberto Carlos and Cristiano Ronaldo. Within seconds the ball was in the back of the net, the opener in the 3-1 victory. David Marshall left crumpled in the net like a seagull caught in a trawler net. It was a sight which will have brought back painful memories for Scotland fans from Euro 2020 and a defeat to Czech Republic. Memories which have yet to be suppressed.
"I think Marsh would be disappointed with it, yeah," was Hibs boss Lee Johnson’s assessment. “It's a great finish right in the top corner but I think the mistake he makes is the first step. He's stepped to read the cross, and once you've stepped away from the ball and it gets whipped inside you it's very difficult to recover and come back."
Many, like Marshall, expected the cross but when Tavernier is over a free-kick, you just never know what he is capable of conjuring up. The 31-year-old, throughout his time at Ibrox, has had his critics but he remains. Not out of sentimentality but necessity. When the time comes to replace him it will be a shrewd piece of recruitment required. But he has a big part to play in the rebuild under Michael Beale. One of those who offers continuity, a reference point. He will be a familiar face despite the impending Rangers facelift. As will Todd Cantwell, scorer of the third goal, and, going by his afternoon back in the Capital, so will Souttar.
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