When John Souttar lined up to earn his first full international cap earlier this month, there were few in Scotland prouder than his Hearts manager and long-time advocate, Craig Levein.
It is a level the former Scotland boss always believed the young defender was capable of attaining, having watched him as a youngster in Dundee. He had already left his managerial position at Dundee United for the national team by the time Souttar was able to sign professional forms, but he has always kept a close eye on his career and stepped in to salvage it when a frustrating period at Tannadice threatened to derail his potential.
Levein believes that the current form of the 21-year-old, and the way in which he stepped up to the challenges posed by international football, have allowed him to force feed some of his detractors humble pie.
“I’m thrilled for John Souttar and his family. I’ve known John since he was 12 years old at Dundee United and his dad just sent me a picture of me coaching John at Dundee United with the caption ‘where have the years gone?’ I was thinking that myself.
“But because of my close relationship with John and how well I get on with his mum and dad, I might not be as proud as they are [to see him earn his first two Scotland caps] but I’m quite a bit down that road.
“The way his career developed and then had gone off the rails a little bit, people had pigeon-holed him. That’s what we do in Scottish football. People said he wasn’t tough enough to be a centre-half.
“I have said previously that playing as a young centre-back in the league is a difficult thing to do. John was playing at 16/17 at Dundee United and was exceptional. I came here at 19 from Cowdenbeath and couldn’t win a header for two years because of the quality and the strength of the senior players I was up against. So, for me, with John it was just about patience until he physically developed.
“I mean, he got booked against Albania for as clean a header as you will ever see. It was a terrible decision. But my point is things people said John can’t do, he is doing them every week now. And one of the biggest compliments I can pay him is you wouldn’t know our captain and possibly our best player isn’t playing.”
Souttar has stepped up to cover for injured Christophe Berra, pictured, not only wearing the armband on match days but also assuming responsibility as he and new partner Jimmy Dunne have combined to offer the side a solid defensive foundation on which to build their 100 per cent start to the league season and five-point gap at the top of the Premiership table.
That domestic form, combined with injuries to other rearguard options prompted Alex McLeish to give the Hearts player a run-out in the recent double-header, against Belgium and Albania. The performances in both games forced the national boss to reassess his opinion of a player he had believed lacked the aggression to hold his own at the elite level. “A lot of people in Scottish football formed an opinion of John Souttar three years ago and that came from [his time at] Dundee United,” said Levein, who accused the Tannadice club of almost wrecking his career and stunting his development by playing him in several different positions and hanging him out to dry when times were tough.
“I think it dogged him for two or three years and it has taken him a few years of playing regular football – obviously he was out injured for a while as well – to prove he can gain the strength and aggression to play at the highest level.
“Interestingly, when you get to international football the aggression and physicality comes back down a level compared to the game here at club level. Here we play teams who throw the ball in on top of our centre-backs from the first minute to the last minute. But that doesn’t happen in international football. It’s more about what is going on in your head and understanding that it’s a different type of football. I am thrilled for John and his family about where he has managed to get to.”
Having made the breakthrough, Levein now believes Souttar could be a mainstay in the Scotland side. “If John and [the currently injured Aberdeen defender, Scott] McKenna could form a partnership, then in four years’ time we could have a really exciting central defensive pairing.
“Once you get to 25 as a centre-back, then it becomes easier for you. But it’s a good position to be in. I don’t know McKenna as well as I know John, but he looks to be a top, top player, so it’s good news.”