Hearts manager Craig Levein has accused Dundee United of almost destroying John Souttar’s football career and believes that the youngster is only now beginning to salvage a reputation that had been tarnished during a turbulent spell at Tannadice.
The 21-year-old recently earned his first full Scotland caps, performing well against some of the world’s best players as Alex McLeish’s men faced Belgium in a friendly and he then strolled through the first Nations League group match against Albania, maintaining the form he has been showing all season at club level.
That has led some observers to reassess their view of the young defender, who has taken on the Tynecastle captaincy in the wake of a long-term injury to his centre-back partner Christophe Berra and risen to the challenge on the pitch, with the capital club unbeaten in all competitions this season.
With Souttar as an ever-present, they can boast a five-game 100 per cent record in the Premiership, and are sitting pretty with a five-point lead at the top of the league table.
The fact that Souttar has helped them keep six clean sheets, despite the defensive reshuffling going on around him, was a factor in helping him graduate from the Under-21 squad for Scotland’s recent double header.
But club boss Levein says there was a danger that may not have happened if he had not quit his former club United for Hearts in February 2016, insisting the fact he was being asked to play in several different positions, in a side struggling for form and low in confidence, was hindering his progress.
“He has always been a centre-half. I’m not being disrespectful but they nearly ruined his career.
“Right back, left back, centre midfield. It’s quite confusing for a young player when you are being moved into three or four different places and no-one has got your back or is giving you the support you need.
“I’m talking disparagingly but United sold all their best players and he was left behind and he became an easy target.
“And it says everything about him that he has taken himself from that position where people thought he was one thing and moved up to someone who I think will be a mainstay for the Scotland national team for a long time.”
Having come through the youth ranks, Souttar signed his first professional contract at United in December 2012, under Levein’s successor and former assistant Peter Houston, and made his first-team debut a couple of months
later. But the latter stages of his career at the Tayside club were dogged by disappointing results and managerial upheaval as cost-cutting measures forced Jackie McNamara and then Mixu Paatelainen to sell off some of their main assets and the young defender
was used to plug gaps in defence and midfield, which Levein says hampered his own development.
But he has rediscovered that early promise since joining Hearts, enjoying a settled position and earning from experienced team-mates and long-time internationals Berra and Aaron Hughes.
Now, in the absence of both, he has proved he is capable of stepping up and proving his critics wrong.