Hearts ace John Souttar admits latest return to action has been his toughest yet

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JOHN SOUTTAR is far more familiar with the complexities and challenges, both mental and physical, of returning from a serious injury than he would like.

The Hearts and Scotland defender endured knee and ankle setbacks during his formative years at Dundee United, was sidelined for six months due to cruciate ligament damage sustained in January 2017 and toiled with a persistent hip issue last term.

Souttar, still only 23, has already illustrated that he possesses ample resolve to emerge from fitness impediments stronger than ever.

However, he contends that his most recent return to action following 12 weeks out with an ankle complaint has been his most testing to date.

Souttar has been pitched straight into a relegation battle and, while he seeks to regain match sharpness, is playing in a side which implements a high defensive line which, on occasion, is downright perilous.

“It is always tough coming from injury at any time but this has probably been the hardest time to come back from injury, personally,” conceded Souttar.

“But that is the reality of football. I want to play every game and there is no time to break yourself back into games.

“You are straight into the fire and that has gone for a few of us.

“But you just need to put all your selfish thoughts aside, about how you are feeling – and that goes for everyone – and just do everything we can to keep this club on the league.”

Souttar is far from the only player who has failed to hit the standards of which he is capable lately.

Hearts have won just three of their 13 matches since Daniel Stendel took the reins at Tynecastle – with two of those triumphs coming in the Scottish Cup against Airdrie and Falkirk – and their Premiership position is even more precarious than when Craig Levein stepped down.

Following St Mirren’s victory at Motherwell on Tuesday night, the Jambos are now six points adrift of the guaranteed safety afforded by 10th spot.

“There have been a number of reasons we haven’t built momentum,” continued Souttar. “People not performing, individual mistakes; I don’t think it has been one thing, it has been a collection.

“We’ve just got to start getting things right. It’s obvious how serious the situation is, we have got to win games and win them quickly.

“It is a difficult situation but it is one that I believe we can still get out of. The whole group is like that. But there is no point in saying we believe, we have to go out there and show it now. There aren’t that many games left so we have to go and do it.”

Indeed, progress in the Scottish Cup would now represent a bonus, rather than a necessity, for a club whose priority is mere top-flight survival. Nevertheless, Souttar believes a win over Rangers could be the catalyst for a revival.

“A win would be huge, not just to get the club to Hampden again, but it would give the whole place a lift and it could ignite something,” he added. “It could be a turning point.”

However, Souttar has heard that before and knows talk is cheap.

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Many onlookers assumed Hearts would find some semblance of momentum following their stirring 2-1 win over the Gers last month, with Steven Naismith and Liam Boyce securing the points at a bouncing Tynecastle.

But Hearts have picked up just two points from a possible 12 in the league matches since.

“I think everyone said that the last game [against Rangers] and it clearly hasn’t worked out,” acknowledged Souttar. “But we go into this game with a bit of a free hit because it’s a cup game.

“We’ve watched them do certain things and know they’re a top team – everyone knows that.

“But if we play to our strengths at Tynecastle and play similar to the last time then we will definitely have a chance.

“For us it’s about controlling what we can do and following the game-plan the gaffer has for us.”

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