JOHN SOUTTAR insists he owes his career to Robbie Neilson – and has described the flak received by the former Hearts head coach as ridiculous.
The 22-year-old readily admits he was ‘stagnating’ at Dundee United in January 2016 when Neilson came calling.
After a protracted pursuit, the Jambos agreed a £120,000 fee with United at the third time of asking and the move was completed with five minutes to spare in the winter transfer window.
That price-tag now looks like a steal given Souttar has gone on to become a mainstay for Hearts, win three caps for Scotland and, amid interest from south of the border, is valued at around £5 million by the capital club.
But Souttar reckons that fraught evening was his sliding doors moment – and will always owe a debt of gratitude to Neilson and current gaffer Craig Levein for making it happen.
He recalled: “I remember Hearts bid £90,000 then £100,000 and Dundee United were saying no. It got to the last day of the January window and they accepted £120,000. I came down the road and did the medical that night.
“I signed with five minutes to go and, looking back, it was a massive point in my progress. I don’t know what would have happened to me because I was stagnating at United.
“It was the wake-up call I needed. When I made the move, United were just going one way, really, and I’m thankful that Robbie got me out.
“Robbie signed me and then worked wonders for me.
“He basically said ‘you are a centre-half and you’ll play centre-half’. He wanted to work on me one-to-one and, as a defender himself, he did a lot with me on heading the ball and being physical.
“He was big on the importance of the gym and that was ideal for me.”
Indeed, it is difficult to find any player who worked under Neilson and his assistant, Stevie Crawford, during that period who would say a bad word about the coaching team.
But Neilson still found himself targeted by a vocal minority of boo-boys, with the nadir of the criticism coming during a Premiership fixture against Partick Thistle in March 2016 when a banner was flown over Tynecastle reading: ‘No style, no bottle, Neilson out’.
Hearts were third in the league when the stunt took place, having romped to the Championship title ahead of Hibs and Rangers with a record-breaking points total in the previous campaign.
“But we were third in the league when that plane flew over!
“He won the league at the first time of asking and some of the stick he got was extremely harsh. He was appreciated by everyone inside of the club, we all knew how good he was. The people inside the club are the ones who can judge and are seeing him every day.
“He’s a top manager and a good man and I hope he gets Dundee United promoted this year.”
The vocal minority got their wish when Neilson left Hearts for MK Dons in December 2016 – just 24 hours after a stunning 2-0 win over Rangers at a raucous Tynecastle and with the Jambos riding high in second spot.
Souttar can still recall the surreal mix of elation after the classy victory and doubt regarding the future of their leader.
He recalled: “That was a weird night. We were unbelievable and Tynecastle was rocking. It was one of the best nights there I can remember.
“It wasn’t confirmed before the game that he was leaving. There hadn’t been a conversation between the manager and the players to say ‘we’re going’, but we sort of knew. It was the elephant in the room.
“Even after the game, no-one knew. It wasn’t until the next day when everything came out, but he didn’t even tell us he was leaving after the game.
“Maybe everyone was on such a high after a result like that, and the place bouncing, that he decided not to have the conversation at that point.
“Robbie, Craw [Stevie Crawford] – who was brilliant – and a lot of the backroom staff went as well and they all said their goodbyes a few days later.”
Friday night’s visit of Dundee United in the Betfred Cup will be the first time Neilson has been back in the Tynecastle dugout since that triumph over the Gers.
Souttar added: “I’d imagine he’ll get a warm welcome. He certainly will from all the staff and the players and I’m sure the fans will too.
“It will be a good test to start the season. The Betfred Cup games are always tough because you are still trying to get into the swing of things and it’s a challenge.”