Hearts legend Gary Locke believes being overlooked for Scotland should not overshadow the remarkable progress made by John Souttar this season, insisting that the guidance of Aaron Hughes and Christophe Berra has shaped the defender into a future captain of the club.
Locke has been dazzled by the 21-year-old centre-half’s displays this term, cultivating an impressive partnership with Berra and helping the capital club register a record-breaking run of eight successive clean sheets between November and January.
The influence of Berra has been evident on the pitch, but Hughes – the most capped outfield player in the history of British football – has been similarly key, even if adopting the Northern Irishman’s vegetarian ways was a step too far for Souttar.
Locke sees similarities with his own development as a youngster at Hearts, being shaped by team-mates such as Craig Levein and Gary Mackay before taking the armband at the tender age of 20.
“This has been John’s best season since he came to the club and that is all down to playing alongside Christophe and Aaron,” said Hearts ambassador Locke. “He even tried to copy Aaron and become a vegetarian for a couple of months! I don’t think that has worked out for him though.
“I know how important that is. I came into the Hearts team as a young player and had to learn quickly.
“I did not sail through my first ten or 15 games easily, but I had experienced guys beside me who let me know all about it if I made a mistake.
“They were the first to get on at you and the first to help you in games. Guys like Craig, Dave MacPherson, Gary Mackay, John Robertson were all mentors to me and it was a fantastic education and great way to learn the game.
“Then Jim Jefferies saw a lot in me to make me captain and I think John will suit that role moving forward – although Christophe may have something to say about that!
“John certainly has all the attributes to be a Hearts captain.
“He is probably quieter than Christophe, but the more games you play in the first team the more confident you become.”
Locke is forthright in his assertion that Souttar’s “time will come for Scotland” at senior level, and he is also adamant that Berra’s time has not yet passed following the 33-year-old’s omission from the squad to face Costa Rica and Hungary.
“Big Alex [McLeish] spoke to Christophe, he told him he wants to have a look at one of the two younger lads,” continued Locke. “Christophe has had a brilliant season and has been Hearts’ best player and most consistent performer.
“I would have thought he’ll be back in there for the competitive fixtures. Alex knows what Christophe’s strengths and weaknesses are and he has done very well for Scotland.”
Berra and Souttar are likely to be the backbone of a new-look Hearts side next season, with Craig Levein having already stated he will seek to bring a swathe of new faces to the club during what promises to be another busy transfer window. However, Locke, launching Hearts’ 2018-19 season tickets which go on sale today, has backed the club to get it right during the summer and finally sow the seeds of stability.
“Hopefully Craig can get his business done early this time and, in the next few windows, we won’t have that same level of turnover,” added Locke. “The quality like Steven Naismith we brought in during January showed what we can do and the type of players the Hearts fans want to see. If we can get players of that quality, and without the unrest of starting next season at Murrayfield, then there are no excuses. We need to get back up the top end of the table.”