BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
CRAIG LEVEIN has accused his former club Dundee United of almost wrecking John Souttar’s career – as he hailed the Hearts star as the answer to Scotland’s centre-back woes.
Souttar has enjoyed a remarkable rise since joining the Jambos from United in a cut-price deal in January 2016, and saw his progress rewarded during the recent international break as he turned out for Alex McLeish’s men against Belgium and Albania.
The 21-year-old has come a long way since departing Tannadice, where his career looked to have stalled. The teenager had become something of a scapegoat among a portion of the club’s support as a malaise set in.
A reluctance to play Souttar in his natural position did little to help.
Levein believes the negative perception of Souttar as soft has persisted for far too long, and barely hide his delight at seeing Hearts’ stand-in skipper silence the snipers.
“I was thrilled for John and his family,” beamed Levein. “I’ve known John since he was 12 years old. His dad sent me a picture of me coaching John at Dundee United with the caption ‘where have the years gone?’ I was thinking that myself.
“The way his career developed, and had gone off the rails a little bit, people had pigeon-holed him. That’s what we do in Scottish football. They said he wasn’t tough enough to be a centre-half.
“He has always been a centre-half. I’m not being disrespectful but they [United] nearly ruined his career; right back, left back, centre midfield. It’s quite confusing for a young player when you are being moved into three or four different places and no-one has got your back and giving you the support you need.
“United sold all their best players and he was left behind and he became an easy target.
“It dogged him for two or three years and it has taken him three years of playing regular football, obviously he was out injured for a while, to prove he can gain the strength and aggression required to play at the highest level.”
Having strolled through the 2-0 victory over Albania in the UEFA Nations League opener at Hampden, Levein reckons Souttar will take some shifting from the national side. Once again, he was imperious in the table-toppers’ 1-0 triumph over Motherwell on Saturday.
“It says everything about him that he has taken himself from that position where people thought he was one thing to becoming someone who I think will be a mainstay for the Scotland national team for a long time,” lauded Levein.
“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.
“One of the biggest compliments I can pay him is you wouldn’t know our captain [Christophe Berra] and possibly our best player isn’t playing.”
A former Scotland international defender himself, Levein now see reasons for Alex McLeish to be cheerful in the emergence of Souttar and Aberdeen’s Scott McKenna. So long a problem position, talented centre-halves appear to be coming to prominence.
“If John and McKenna could form a partnership in four years’ time we could have a really exciting central defensive pairing,” added Levein. “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. It’s good news.”