Hearts manager Robbie Neilson insists there is no pressure on John Souttar to make his comeback before the end of the season – despite welcoming the defender back to group training.
The Scotland international rejoined his team-mates earlier this week as he steps up his latest recovery from a ruptured Achilles tendon.
Souttar underwent an operation in August after suffering a relapse in his rehabilitation from the exact same injury he sustained in February 2020.
It is the third time the former Dundee United player has had surgery for the injury after also damaging his Achilles tendon in January 2017.
The luckless Souttar, who only managed 11 appearances last season, has also been troubled by hip and ankle issues in the last three years.
Despite leaving the door open for the 24-year-old to return for the closing stages of the Championship season, Neilson admits he will not rush the player back into the team.
Neilson, whose side host Morton on Saturday, said: “We’re absolutely delighted to get John back.
“He’s still continuing his rehab, so one of the things for us was getting him back in with the group to keep his motivation going, but also to give the rest of the squad a lift because he is a big character.
“He has had a tough couple of years so the first couple of days it has been five minutes, then he got up to ten, and now we’re at 25-30 minutes training with the group, and then he goes away and does his conditioning work.
“That will continue over the course of the next four weeks and then we’ll look to introduce him to full training and expose him to the high end of it.”
Asked if former Dundee United centre-half Souttar could return this season, Neilson added: “Right from the very start the objective was to get him back for pre-season.
“If we can get him back ahead of that we’ll be delighted.
“But John has had a very difficult couple of years with injuries and coming back and playing again.
“So I don’t want to put any kind of timescale on it at all.
“I just want to make sure he’s 100 per cent fit and that we can give him the best possible opportunity to progress his career, because in my opinion he is one of the best centre-halves in the country.
“So it’s up to us to make sure we get him fit and keep him fit.”
Neilson, meanwhile, admits he has been delighted with 12-goal striker Liam Boyce’s contribution this season after revealing how the club had to fend off interest in Northern Ireland international last summer.
Neilson added: “One of the first things I said to Ann (Budge, owner) when I came in was: ‘Let’s make sure we keep Liam Boyce’ because with the club being demoted there were a number of clubs in the Premiership who were looking to take him.
“I thought it was very important we held on to our strongest players to give us a chance to get promoted again and we managed to do that.
“I think he wanted to stay, his family is settled here.
“But there were a number of clubs who wanted to take him either on loan or permanently and we had to bat that off.
“We create a lot of chances for him which allows him to score goals but I think what goes unnoticed is his link play.”