BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
ROBBIE NEILSON has told John Souttar to emulate Hearts teammate Callum Paterson by cementing a place in the Scotland side before he considers a move south of the border.
Souttar, 20, has been a revelation since arriving from Dundee United in January, keeping deposed skipper Alim Ozturk out of the side with a string of classy showings and reportedly attracting interest from English Championship outfit Aston Villa.
With a dearth of defensive options at national level, the youngster – a regular for Scotland under-21s – has also been tipped to make the step up to the full squad.
And Neilson believes it is imperative for Souttar to stay at Tynecastle until he has realised his aspiration of breaking into Gordon Strachan’s set-up to ensure he gets the best possible move – just as Paterson has.
Neilson said: “John understands that he still has another couple of years to do here. He needs to mature, get more physical and learn as a defender.
“You can see the progression he has made since coming to Hearts but, even with that, he can still move up a few steps before he is ready to move down south. It would be jumping the gun to talk about him leaving now. We have no interest in selling him and he has no interest in leaving.
“He has a great opportunity here. He is playing week-in, week-out for one of the top teams in Scotland. The next step for John is to try and get into the national team and play at a consistent level through an entire season at club level.
“Callum Paterson is an example of that. Callum will go in the summer and he’ll go to be a first-team player somewhere. That is what I want for all my players. Whenever our players go, whether it’s for a fee or compensation, we want them to be first-team players.
“I don’t want my players to leave Hearts to be under-21 players in England or get loaned out somewhere. You want them to be ready.”
Neilson laughed off any suggestion that Souttar could have his head turned by the admiring glances, insisting the defender has an old head on young shoulders after being tipped for big things since he was a schoolboy.
He also emphasised that it is a situation Hearts are comfortable with, having seen the likes of Paterson, Sam Nicholson and Jamie Walker coveted in the recent past.
Neilson continued: “John understands how it works. When he came through as a kid at United he was linked with clubs left, right and centre. It’s second nature to him.
“He’s been one of our key players this year. He’s young and has great potential so I expect more and more of this to happen before the window opens. I hope it does – because it means he is doing well.
“The majority of them are like that – they all get linked, Walker, Nicholson, Paterson, it’s just part and parcel of football. We usually just have a laugh and a joke about it and say ‘who is it this week?’”
Meanwhile, Neilson, who has confirmed Faycal Rherras will return to contention after illness kept him out of their last match against Dundee, insists Hearts’ next three fixtures will provide a key gauge of their progress this term.
The Jambos travel to Kilmarnock tonight before a trip to face Inverness on Saturday – and Neilson is acutely aware that they failed to register a league win at either venue last season.
They then host St Johnstone at Tynecastle, having failed to beat the Perth side in the previous two encounters in Gorgie.
He added: “We’re aiming for nine points. The are three tough games, three games where we will probably be the favourites going into them but that can bring pitfalls as well. The next games will be big markers for us.”