Don’t talk to John Souttar about the painful end to Hearts’ season. Rest assured, it was a lot worse for him.
The defender was forced to inject himself four times a day while watching his calf muscle “almost wither away”. Souttar’s discomfort was compounded by his own helplessness as his team-mates suffered a form lapse that finally deposited Hearts in fifth place.
But now Souttar has some good news at last. He can see light – and a gleaming new stand – at the end of the tunnel. The 20-year-old is now confident he will return in time for the opening of Hearts’ new 7,200 capacity main stand, scheduled for completion in September.
Indeed, Souttar could be in action as soon as August, which is a marked improvement on the initial prognosis, which predicted an October return at the earliest.
In the bleak days after he sustained such a serious Achilles injury against Celtic in January thoughts of playing again were far from Souttar’s thoughts.
Shortly after being touted for a Scotland call-up he was grimacing as he tried to become adept at sticking a needle in his stomach, a grisly four-times-a-day chore to prevent blood clots.
“After I got the op I had to sit with my leg up – I could move for five minutes every hour,” he explained yesterday. “I was putting injections in myself every four hours in my stomach and I could not move. Week by week I could see the calf withering away and it was just bone basically at the end, there was no muscle at all. You could stretch the skin right out. So that was tough. But now the muscle is back and it’s probably stronger than it was before.
“I have grown up as a person as well when I have been injured.
“You get tested every day. You see the boys training and you are in the gym doing spins and lifting weights to try and make yourself stronger.
“Sometimes you go through periods when you are thinking ‘this is going nowhere’. You are looking at your calf, where the muscle had totally wasted away on my left side. You are looking at it and thinking ‘I am working hard every day but nothing seems to be happening’.
“That is obviously tough. After you get over that and get back running it has been good.”
Still only 20, Souttar’s powers of recovery are aided by youth. But he also relied on Thai therapy, a form of yoga, to keep him flexible. It’s a discipline he has practiced since his days with Dundee United.
“Jackie [McNamara] brought this guy, Ken Anderson, in at Dundee United and I know a lot of the boys in the Premiership go to him,” he said. “It’s an injury prevention thing for your muscles. Stuart Armstrong goes to him. It’s actually all right when you get used to it. I’ve been doing it since I was 16.”
Such commitment to his rehabilitation is proving fruitful and he can now start to contemplate playing again at Tynecastle, in what could be a new-look back three. Head coach Ian Cathro is considering employing a system, with Christophe Berra, Aaron Hughes and Souttar making up a trio of centre-halves.
Souttar has no qualms about this, or the fact Hearts’ overhaul won’t stop at the defence, with more comings and goings guaranteed.
“I have played that [system] a few times when I was at United,” he said. “It is a formation that Chelsea won the league with and Juventus got to the Champions League final playing. It is a modern thing and it was done in the past as well. Whatever formation we play next year it will be a completely different team than it was in the last stage of last season.”
Souttar was speaking to promote a series of charity events, including a West Highland Way walk, organised by Jordan Moore and Megan O’Donnell, the daughter of the late Motherwell player Phil, to raise money for Teenage Cancer Trust and CRY (Cardiac Risk in the Young).
Of course no one needs to remind Souttar about perspective.
Hearts’ woes, his own injury difficulties, they all pale when compared to Moore’s struggles after being diagnosed with skin cancer when only 19. Souttar was a flatmate as well as team-mate of Moore’s at the time at Dundee United, and so he saw first hand what he had to endure. “It is different saying you’re having tough days compared to that – you can’t compare,” he said.