Alex McLeish knows a centre-half when he sees one. It’s why he was quick to spot Scott McKenna’s potential and it’s why he is keen to see what John Souttar can do at full international level.
The Hearts centre-half was already on course for a Scotland call-up before Craig Levein gave McLeish an impish nudge last week by mentioning Souttar was eligible to play for Australia. The player’s mother is Australian. McLeish was quick to offer his best wishes to Levein, who, it was announced by Hearts in the morning, was taken to hospital yesterday.
The statement confirmed that having received medical treatment, Levein “is now recovering well” in hospital.
“It’s concerning, absolutely,” said McLeish. “We wish him a speedy recovery. It’s certainly a shock.” The pair haven’t spoken recently but exchanged text messages following Levein’s comments last week. Like McLeish, Levein has every right to feel qualified to speak about a centre-half’s merits. Both men were outstanding central defenders in their day. Indeed, they partnered each other occasionally at the back for Scotland.
McLeish thanked Levein for his input but assures it was all under control. “He didn’t need to do that – John was in my thoughts,” he said. “I sent him a friendly text back. I said I didn’t want to tell him how to pick his team but I gave him some advice [too]!”
Souttar’s inclusion means he automatically steps down from duty with the Under-21s for the games against Andorra and the Netherlands. His call-up to Scot Gemmill’s side last week had prompted Levein to issue that reminder the defender has other options.
Having become such a fixture in the Hearts side, as well as being named captain in injured Christophe Berra’s absence, Levein clearly felt it was time he was given a full Scotland call-up. So he was aghast when Souttar was named in the Under-21s, particularly since he knew McKenna’s injury means the Scots are now a centre-half down prior to the forthcoming fixtures against Belgium and Albania.
The reason Souttar was named by Gemmill, pictured above, is that McLeish was still deliberating over his squad. The Scotland manager stressed Souttar was always firmly in contention.
“Having a week to decide on the squad, I had John in mind for a wee while and I had a chat with Scot, who still had to pick his squad,” said McLeish. “I said I can’t say anything just now to Scot Gemmill and I continued to watch John over the last couple of weeks. He started the season very strong. He had a mature performance v Dunfermline last week and so he is in this squad.”
It was a tale of two centre-halves yesterday as McLeish answered questions about the 23-man squad in the knowledge the honeymoon is over. After next Friday’s friendly against Belgium the serious action begins three days later against Albania in the Nations League.
Souttar is in form at just the right time. Jack Hendry, meanwhile, has picked the worst possible moment to suffer an inevitable drop in performance level. This time last year he was still finding his feet at Dundee. Since last January, when he signed for Celtic, the 23-year-old has played in Europe for the first time and been called-up by Scotland, acquitting himself well in two outings under McLeish to date.
Celtic’s centre-half problems meant he started the season as a first-choice. Hendry endured some rocky moments to spark a debate over whether he is in fact of sufficient standard for Celtic. He is now out of the firing line due to an injury and has missed Celtic’s last two games, against FK Suduva and Hamilton Accies. McLeish expects him to recover in time to take his place in the squad. The manager is convinced the defender has the mettle to survive this current difficult spell and offered some consoling words. “That happens – it happened to me in my career as well,” he said. “I played 13 in a row for Scotland and had an injury and then found it difficult to find my form again.
“Jack has played very well for us and he played well in the South American trip.
“I understand he didn’t travel last week [to Lithuania] because of an injury so maybe he’s been playing with that for a few weeks. Who knows? We’ll find out when he comes with us and joins us.
“When you play with Celtic and Rangers you need a strong mentality and it’s hard when you make a mistake and the fans have a go at you, especially at those clubs.
“The irony is that he got criticised for losing a goal in Europe but we then had a fantastic report on him from the Thistle game. I know he went on a mazy run which I hear was on YouTube, but by and large he had a really solid game.
“The tiniest mistake at Rangers and Celtic can hurt players and make them lose their confidence but I think Jack has the bottle. We know football and football fans – you make a mistake and they get on your back. That’s the nature of the game. You need to be strong and get that experience.
“It’s going to happen at sometime and it’s now down to how he reacts to that with performances with Celtic.”
McLeish has been able to pick Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney, his star players, for the first time together. He now has the same quandary as predecessor Gordon Strachan in terms of how to get the best out of two such vital assets who play in the same position. It’s likely Robertson will be played as left wing-half, with McLeish set to trial a three-at-the-back system against Belgium. This formation would see Tierney, pictured left, play at left centre-half.
“We have to maximise the strengths of the players,” he said. “Tierney is a left-sided player, Robertson is a left-sided player – so they will play on the left side. We will find a system that suits the players’ strengths.”