Hearts defender John Souttar believes his imperious recent form is down to physical prowess after working out in the Riccarton gym. He now feels ready to match Hibs’ physicality on Sunday.
Souttar admits he struggled to cope after joining Hearts from Dundee United early in 2016. It took him time to adapt and bulk up but he is now in the form of his life entering the Scottish Cup derby.
He and Christophe Berra were two defensive linchpins in Hearts’ pre-winter break success as they went nine games unbeaten and set a new club record of six successive clean sheets.
“When I made the move to Hearts, I was a bit off it compared to the rest of the team,” Souttar conceded. “I worked as hard as I possibly could on the physical side of my game by doing extra stuff in the gym.
“I was tough being a centre-half at 16, 17, 18 years of age as I was going in against grown men. I learned quickly that ability wasn’t enough. You had to have that physical aspect to your game as well. I am feeling the benefits now.”
The one game Souttar missed in that unbeaten sequence was probably the one he would have liked to have played in most. Suspension precluded him from Celtic’s visit to Tynecastle, meaning he watched the momentous 4-0 win from the stand.
“The boys set a high bar against Celtic but I was sitting in the stands. A lot of the lads have been very quick to remind me of that fact,” he joked. “Luckily enough, we won the next week so it is all good. If we can match the Celtic display or produce anything like that against Hibs we will be in with a shout. Interestingly enough, we have not lost at Tynecastle since the new stand has been put in.”
Much is at stake this weekend as Hibs aim for ten derbies without defeat, while Hearts try to protect their aforementioned statistics. There is also the small matter of a place in the next round of a national cup competition. The teams met just three weeks ago in the Ladbrokes Premiership when Oli Shaw’s phantom goal was not given and a 0-0 draw ensued.
“It is strange to get them in the Scottish Cup again especially so soon after we have played them in the league,” said Souttar. “Of all the teams you could get. It will be a brilliant occasion and everyone is looking forward to it.
“There is a trophy at the end of it all. Derbies are different and it’s easy to forget that but if we play our game then we have got a good chance. I think we are due them one. Anything can happen in a derby. The last game obviously had that incident [phantom goal] but hopefully we can beat them.
“I have only been involved in three Edinburgh derbies. It is the biggest thing in the city. It is something that we are all looking forward to. When you are playing in them it is different to watching it on the box as the atmosphere is brilliant and the fans get right behind you, especially at Tynecastle. Especially with the way we are going just now, with the new stand and the fans packed into the stadium, it is a tough place to come for anyone.”
Despite the riotous victory over Celtic to end the Glasgow club’s 69-game unbeaten domestic run, Hearts have been more solid than spectacular of late. Manager Craig Levein has prioritised resilient defending, so a narrow victory against Hibs would certainly be welcomed.
“If we beat Hibs 1-0, we’ll be just as happy as were when we beat Celtic 4-0,” said Souttar. “That just shows you what can happen when Hearts start sharp and the supporters get right behind them. The Hearts fans are basically the 12th man and when they get right behind us we can give everybody a game.”