One of the more talked about young players in the last three seasons has gone off the boil somewhat, but Hearts will be confident they can bring out the best in him, as Craig Fowler writes
Dundee United fans couldn’t hide their excitement when John Souttar first broke into the team’s starting XI, and they weren’t the only ones. Keener observers of the Scottish game were greatly impressed with the 16-year-old centre back who played the game with the kind of cool, calm and collected attitude of a Serie A veteran twice his age.
His reliance on technique was what we’ve always wanted from our footballers and the exact opposite of the stereotypical Scottish centre back. Instead of lumping it up the park, Souttar liked to pass. Instead of immediately chucking the responsibility of starting an attack to the nearest team-mate, Souttar would take it for a run. For the dreamers he represented hope for a different, better future, but even then there were warning signs he would not enjoy a rapid progression to the top of the Scottish game.
Firstly, he was a 16-year-old centre back. There isn’t a footballer of that age who doesn’t make mistakes. It’s all part of the learning process. However, when you make a mistake as a striker or a midfielder it is unlikely to lead to a goal for the opposing side. There have been exceptions in the past where it’s worked, where a young defender goes into a side and excels - Danny Wilson alongside David Weir at Rangers for example - but generally there is a player beside the youngster who is not only experienced and capable of talking him through every moment of the game, but also good enough to cover for the errors when they do come.
When Souttar played without error in United’s back four he stood out, but unfortunately this was also true when his inexperience got the better of him. Without a settled partner in the other centre back position, United manager Jackie McNamara began the experiment of moving the player around in the hope of finding his strongest role, or at least with the intention of getting him enough game time in a position that wouldn’t harm results. Souttar played right back and then centre midfield. The latter brought some terrific results towards the end of last season. Then came this campaign.
Perhaps, if United were a better side, then Souttar would have continued his good form and Hearts may have been priced out of the market by Celtic and clubs south of the border, teams reportedly very interested in the player but conspicuous by their absence when the Gorgie Road club made their move in January. Maybe he was a product of United’s failure. We’ll never know for sure. The only thing for certain is that Souttar, tipped by some to scoop the Young Player of the Year prize, really disappointed in the first half of this season.
There’s also the feeling Souttar doesn’t have a nailed down position. His physical shortfalls aren’t such a problem given his relative age and likelihood that he’ll bulk out, but his lack of aerial ability causes concern. Regardless of how we want our young centre backs to develop, there’s no getting away from the fact that in Scottish football you need to be at least adequate in the air. At right back he may not have the athleticism needed to be anything more than a dependable option in football’s least fashionable position, while in the centre of the park he may lack that bit of devilment most battlers have in the engine room.
This column may sound like it’s becoming negative, or that this writer is saying this isn’t a good deal for Hearts, but that’s not how it should be seen. John Souttar is definitely one thing: a very talented footballer. Robbie Neilson called him one of the hottest prospects in the Scottish game and he’s absolutely bang on the money. There are things that can be coached and things that can be improved on, but his mix of height and natural football technique is not something that can be learned.
For around £150,000, Hearts have taken a punt on a player and they’ve taken a punt on themselves. Dundee United may not have got the best out of the player, but who’s to say that Hearts can’t? The growth in Callum Paterson, Jamie Walker and Sam Nicholson since Neilson and Craig Levein took over the running of Hearts indicates that the head coach and his staff know a thing or two about developing a young player. If Souttar doesn’t reach his potential then they can chalk it up to experience and try again. If he does, the buy-improve-sell-repeat conveyer belt may just have found its next million pound talent.
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