John Souttar believes he has already improved significantly as a defender in just two months with Hearts.
The teenage centre-back has previously spoken of how he had become disillusioned at former club Dundee United, where the rigours of a relegation battle and the accompanying negativity were taking a toll on his form and mindset.
However, aside from rediscovering his mojo since joining Hearts in January, the 19-year-old centre-back also feels he has simply become a stronger, more physical player as a result of the level of coaching he has received and the extra gym work he has been encouraged to undertake at Riccarton. In addition, he feels he has benefited from watching the club’s senior players at work.
“It’s very intense in training but it’s what I wanted,” said Souttar, speaking a few hours before it emerged that Hearts’ match at Inverness tonight had been postponed due to a virus ravaging the Tynecastle squad. “I want to get better and learn. As soon as I walked in the door at Hearts I was given an individual strength and conditioning programme to bulk up. I’ve improved massively in the gym and my heading has come on, too. I think as a young centre-back you’re always going to have to learn quickly in the air, because experienced strikers know how to work you. The more you play and the stronger you are, the easier it is to handle. Someone like Igor Rossi has played in a top league and is the ultimate professional. For me, you come in and see guys like that and you want to copy what they’re doing – things like coming in early to stretch off. You can always learn.”
Souttar, renowned for being a ball-playing centre-back, feels he is now becoming a more rounded defender but doesn’t want to lose the swashbuckling side of his game. “People have opinions and Scotland seems to have this thing about centre-backs just having to hit the ball long,” he explained. “People are maybe realising that there’s another way to play. At the same time, I’m learning other aspects of the game. At 17 I thought it was all about being on the ball and someone else would take care of the physical stuff. But you’ve got to match people physically. Coming here, getting physically stronger, getting leaner is going to help me in those challenges with strikers.”
Souttar, who had become a scapegoat for United’s loss of form in the eyes of supporters, is enjoying a new lease of life at Tynecastle. The defender has started each of Hearts’ last six matches and has helped his new team keep five clean sheets in the eight games he has started so far. By contrast, he didn’t enjoy a single clean sheet in the first half of the season with United. The feeling that he is valued by Hearts’ management and supporters alike has helped galvanise him after a period when he felt like he was stagnating amid the Tannadice malaise.
“It was a tough time for me at United,” he explained. “They were bottom of the league so the last thing they were worried about was developing players. It’s tough for the young players there because the club just wants to scrape wins. Here, I’ve been shown a pathway and they believe in me. For someone to say ‘I believe in you’, I feel like I can go places. I’m seeing and hearing different things here. It’s intense and there’s a lot of effort put in here to make us all better.”
Souttar first emerged on to the scene three years ago when he made his United debut as a 16-year-old. He and Ryan Gauld, his close friend and former United team-mate, were hyped up as two of the brightest prospects in Scottish football, but Souttar is adamant that having the spotlight shone on him at such a young age did not inhibit him.
“I don’t think there was too much expected of me, because I believe in myself,” he said. “I came through at the same time as Ryan Gauld and he has the same mindset. We both wanted an opportunity to play early on. Jackie McNamara gave us that chance at the time. It’s not always been smooth but hopefully we can kick on now and improve.”