Hearts boss Craig Levein hails John Souttar as the most improved player in Scottish football – and warns that Alex McLeish could lose him to AUSTRALIA



HEARTS boss Craig Levein has issued a thinly-veiled warning to Scotland boss Alex McLeish by revealing John Souttar could pursue an international career with Australia should he continue to be overlooked by the land of his birth.

Levein took the opportunity yesterday [Thursday] to pointedly shine a light on Souttar’s Aussie heritage, with one of his grandmothers hailing from Down Under.

That would make the classy defender eligible to join up with Graham Arnold’s Socceroos, who are next in action when South Korea visit Brisbane in November.

Souttar’s selection in Scot Gemmill’s under-21 squad for upcoming clashes against Andorra and the Netherlands raised plenty of eyebrows, with his sparkling form this term – allied with McLeish’s sparse options at centre-half – prompting expectations of a senior call-up.

Having done the job himself, Levein is loath to tell the national team boss who to pick, nevertheless, his message was clear.

“He still might be selected for the senior side. But you do know he’s got an Australian grandparent, right?” smiled Levein. “I’m not going to tell anybody who they should pick to play in the national team. I know what that’s like, but I’m pointing something out here. And I’m being deadly serious.

“He’s arguably the most improved player in Scotland over the last couple of years.

“John is our captain, with Christophe [Berra] out injured and has improved beyond all recognition. Last year he was excellent and he’s even better this year after working so hard in the summer.”

Perhaps the most noticeable improvement in Souttar’s game has come in the form of his physicality and aggression, with the influence of club captain – and no-nonsense stopper – Christophe Berra shining through in his displays.

Levein is adamant that was always likely to develop over time, criticising some onlookers’ desire to pass judgement on a player when he was still a raw teenager.

“I signed for Hearts at 19 and didn’t win a header for two years!” recalled Levein. “I said when he was getting stick while playing for Dundee United, he was getting judged on things that he shouldn’t have been getting judged on – like physicality.

“Centre-backs don’t get to that point until they’re into their early to mid-20s. So I understand exactly where John Souttar was in his career before he came here.

“That is one thing in Scotland: we’re in a rush to criticise young players when they aren’t fully developed.

“He’s a different animal now and you can judge him on the physical contest with the strikers he’s facing, because he’s now fully developed.”

Asked whether the notion of losing Scottish talent due to dual nationality rule was an issue he was conscious of during his ill-fated three-year reign at Hampden, Levein added bluntly: “Well, I don’t think I had a player of the quality of John Souttar who wasn’t getting picked.”

Meanwhile, Levein is adamant cashing in on Kyle Lafferty after one season was always part of Hearts’ masterplan as he declared himself satisfied with the deal the capital club struck with Rangers.

Lafferty finally completed a six-figure switch to the Gers on Wednesday afternoon, ending a protracted summer saga by re-joining his boyhood heroes.

“The dialogue a year ago was clear,” explained Levein. “The agreement was he would get his career back on track through that first year and then we would do our best to move him on and, in effect, help his financial situation as well.

“We were there to help him and Kyle was here to help us score goals – I think it has been a good situation for everyone.

“We were prepared for this scenario. Kyle is a popular figure with our supporters and myself, but the situation has resolved itself in the way we all envisaged when we first sat down last summer.”

(Pic: Alasdair Middleton)

And Levein was left in no doubt regarding Lafferty’s desperation to re-join Rangers, and reckons the time was right for him to move on – rather than run the risk of being left with an unsettled player once the transfer window closed.

“He said he wanted to go. He told me 123 times that he wanted to play for Rangers!” added Levein.

“It doesn’t always mean that happens, but if we get good value out of the deal that’s better than someone sitting in the building who feels they had an opportunity to go back to the club he loves, which can sometimes cause difficulties.”