Craig Levein has fired a warning shot across the bows of Scotland manager Alex McLeish after defender John Souttar was omitted from the squad for the friendly against Belgium and the inaugural Nations League match against Albania next month.
Asked if he was surprised that his stand-in captain had been named among the U21s rather than the full squad, the Hearts boss and former national team manager boss: “You do know he’s got an Australian grandparent, right?
“I’m not going to tell anybody who they should pick to play in the national team. I know what that’s like. But I’m pointing something out here. And I’m being deadly serious.”
When it comes to the matter of dual nationality Levein said selecting a player rather than risk losing them was not something he had to worry about in his tenure. “I don’t think I had a player of the quality of John Souttar who wasn’t getting picked at the time.”
McLeish has insisted that Souttar is on his radar, having watched him at East End Park last weekend and having been impressed by his defensive display as Hearts defeated Celtic the week before, and he did select him for the summer tour of Peru and Mexico. But the youngster, who has represented Scotland at U17, U19 and U21 level, was denied his first full cap when he had to withdraw due to injury.
With a shortage of central defensive options, Souttar was expected to again be in the reckoning for the upcoming games, on 7 and 10 September, but he was not in the original line-up, surprising many, including his club manager.
“He’s arguably the most improved player in Scotland over the last couple of years. He’s our captain, with Christophe [Berra] out injured, and he’s improved beyond all recognition from what he was on arrival here. Let’s just say that last year he was excellent and he’s even better this year. He’s worked so hard this summer.”
Team-mate Steven Naismith, who had also been touted for a return to the international scene after impressing during his loan spell at Hearts, is a man with exacting standards, who has played at Rangers, Everton and Norwich but when he was asked about Souttar he described him as one of the hungriest young players he has ever worked with.
“That’s a hell of compliment,” said Levein. “But it’s true. John is just eager to get better. From the minute he came in the door, he has improved so much. And that’s all down to his attitude.
“He’s not one of these boys who will learn something or get something and put his feet up. He just wants to get better all the time.
“You would see him talking to Aaron[Hughes], to Christophe, to Naisy, to Don Cowie all the time about what he should do to become a better pro.”
Criticised in the past for lapses in concentration and a lack of physicality, Souttar himself acknowledges he had a lot to learn about the defensive side of his game, developing a greater aerial presence and honing his decision-making when it comes to dominating opponents or clearing danger and he has said that last season, playing alongside the likes of Berra and Hughes proved a valuable education.
“I think he’s growing up as well,” said Levein. “Physically as much as anything. I said when he was getting stick at Dundee United that I signed for Hearts at 19 and didn’t win a header for two years. That’s true! It’s the physicality of stepping up to the top league, playing against strikers who are bigger, stronger and know how to use their body.
“I think centre backs don’t get to that point until they’re into their early to mid-20s. So I understand exactly where John Souttar was, in his career, before he came here. He was being judged on things that he shouldn’t have been, such as physicality. But he’s a different animal now. And you can judge him on the physical contest with the strikers he’s facing, because he’s now fully developed.
“He’s a calm boy. He’s very, very ambitious. And he’s doing all the right things, right now. Everyone thinks he’s 24 or 25, he’s been around that long. But he’s still eligible for the under-21s!”
Eligible for them, yes, but the hint of mischief in Levein’s smile tells anyone watching that he, like others, doesn’t feel that is where he is of most value to his country.