John Souttar was absent from the Hearts team that ended Celtic’s invincible run with a rousing 4-0 victory at Tynecastle last term, but he was playing when Brendan Rodgers’ men returned to Gorgie late in the season to gain revenge with a 3-1 win.
That scoreline was less flattering, something captain and central defensive partner Christophe Berra likes to remind Souttar of, but the young Scot says there was plenty of positives to take from a game that may have ended differently had his ‘goal’ not been chalked off by the referee just minutes before Kyle Lafferty officially opened the scoring.
Without the officials’ intervention, a 2-0 advantage may have been enough of a cushion for the home team, particularly in front of the partisan Tynecastle crowd and the fact they again tested Celtic throughout that 90 minutes is a source of optimism for Souttar as he heads into today’s first meeting of the season with the double treble winners. There is no overwhelming sense of trepidation at Hearts. Instead the squad are quietly confident.
“You have just got to enjoy it,” Souttar said. “We are at a stage now where, when we are playing at Tynecastle, we are always going to fancy ourselves. We did towards the end of last season and we were only beaten the once and that was by Celtic.”
That was in the third last fixture of the season. Prior to that, Hearts last ‘home’ defeat was against Kilmarnock, at their temporary Murrayfield abode, back in November. “Even then, we gave Celtic a good game so we are going to go out there full of optimism and hopefully that will carry on through the game on Saturday.”
They began both Gorgie games against Celtic on the front foot, giving their opponents plenty to think about rather than simply offering them room to take over proceedings. A similar approach is planned today, with Hearts manager asking his men to set the tempo and dictate their fair share of the game.
“We caused them problems doing that last year,” said Souttar, happy that they will again have a go. “Tynecastle is never an easy place to come if we start well and the fans are right behind them. If we can get them on side then it is not an easy place for anyone to play.We saw that with Celtic, who were making mistakes that they wouldn’t have made at home so it was an effective way to play and I don’t see why we would change that.”
The defeat of Celtic last term was even more impressive and surprising given Hearts’ reliance on youth and the part played in the 4-0 triumph by promising starlet Harry Cochrane, who opened the scoring and turned up the volume in the Tynecastle stands.
It is the promise of that kind of backing from the packed stadium that is exciting the club’s new arrivals, according to Souttar.
Thirteen of them have arrived over the summer, giving their manager tactical options and strength in depth, and offered the cause to believe that they can improve on last season, and finish higher than sixth place.
The aim is to challenge for a European place and after a decent start, another good showing against Celtic would further boost confidence and help them gather a head of steam.
“It has been a tough couple of years for everyone at the club,” explained Souttar, “but we are feeling positive now and hopefully that is us over that hill now.”
But comfortable victories over the likes of Cowdenbeath and Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the Betfred Cup and a buoyant 4-1 win at Hamilton in the opening Premiership match of the season are one thing, Souttar knows that facing Celtic represents a massive step up. But he believes the newcomers have been made well aware of that and are still itching to get going and experience a fixture that has grown in intensity thanks to some off-field comments and stubborn needle last season.
“I think they will be in a for a wee shock at the weekend,” said Souttar of the new colleagues who will get their first taste of playing Celtic and of running out at a full Tynecastle. “Once the game starts it can often pass you by, but you have just got to enjoy it. It is why you become a footballer, to play at Tynecastle, on a Saturday, against Celtic, there is nothing better so you’ve got to enjoy it.
“I think just to play at Tynecastle, in front of a full house, I think that’s what the guys are looking forward to. When you sign for Hearts you hear all about the Tynecastle atmosphere and that is what you look forward to and that is what the guys will be thinking. They will be thinking that they have done the hard work of going to Hamilton, and then played the early cup games where there wasn’t much of a crowd, so they will be looking forward to playing in front of a full Tynecastle.”