Neilson: The club is bigger than any player, but I won’t banish John

Hearts boss Robbie Neilson met the media ahead of Hearts’ season-resuming tie against St. Johnstone at Tynecastle. Jamie McIntosh reports.

(Photo Credit – Bauer Radio)

Hearts manager Robbie Neilson has confirmed that although defender John Souttar will soon be departing for Rangers, he will continue to feature regularly for Hearts until that time comes. 

The Scotland internationalist became Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s second signing by agreeing a pre-contract on Friday, much to the disgust of the Hearts faithful. 

There are many issues that have arisen with this particular agreement. The main one being that without a satisfactory bid from The Gers to acquire the services of Souttar in January, he will have to see out the remaining few months of his Tynecastle contract in, shall we say, awkward circumstances. 

Hearts fans haven’t minced their words since Friday’s announcement. Some have said they’ll be booing the defender should he play against St. Johnstone, whereas others have demanded he never don the famous maroon jersey again.  

Fortunately for Souttar, the Hearts fans don’t choose the starting 11 and his current manager was much more understanding of the situation the defender currently finds himself in. 

Having resurrected his Scotland career in a 90 minute outing against Denmark in November, it’s now imperative that Souttar continues to feature regularly ahead of Scotland’s crucial World Cup Playoff against Ukraine and upcoming Nations League matches. 

The Hearts boss explained that the defender kept in regular dialogue with the club throughout his discussions with Rangers and admitted that no offer has been made by the Glasgow club to secure Souttar in January. 

“John signed a pre-contract but there has been no offer for him, so there isn’t a decision to be made at this moment,” Neilson said. 

“If and when an offer comes in, then there’s a decision to make. At this point, John will stay here till the summer. He will be utilised to make sure we perform as best as we can and get into Europe.

“John will be part of the squad going forward. Nothing has changed in that. It’s important we focus on the club and driving forward. No player will ever be bigger than the club. People will come and go, it’s about the team performing and picking up three points to progress,” he added.

“We knew he had knocked us back and was going to speak to clubs. He has kept us in the loop all the way through. I’ve had loads of chats with John, so I knew what was happening. Then we got contacted to say it was happening and we have to deal with it.

“I can understand the disappointment. We have a disappointment in here as well. As a fanbase and a club, we have to make sure we look at the bigger picture. That is to support the team to push forward and try to get European football. 

“The most important thing for us is three points on Tuesday night. We want to drive the club forward, continue the good form we’ve had, the feel-good factor that has made Tynecastle a fortress, and hopefully the fans will understand that.

“John is an experienced international player. I don’t expect him to make any mistakes. He’s gone through this season without making any. I think he will be strong enough mentally to get through it. I totally understand everyone’s frustrations with it but it’s about winning games.”

While much of the Tynecastle talk of late has revolved around Souttar, Hearts have managed to tie down Michael Smith, Craig Halkett and Stephen Kingsley on new contracts, as well as club captain Craig Gordon. 

The Hearts boss was understandably delighted with the news and added that a new deal for the returning Euan Henderson is also in the pipeline after a successful loan spell at Alloa. 

“Yeah, I’m delighted. Getting Craig first and foremost was massive for us, he’s been outstanding ever since he’s walked back in the door. Getting Halkett, Smith and Kingsley was really important as well. 

“We speak about continuity a lot at the club, keeping a group here for a number of years that we can build around, getting those four allows us to build. In midfield we got a couple in the summer, striker-wise we probably need another one, but we’ve got a good base of a squad now. 

“Euan will stay with us probably until the end of the window, because the loan window stays open a wee bit longer. We’ll then decide depending on who comes in, recruitment-wise, whether we keep Euan with us or whether we put him out on loan again. 

“He’s had a brilliant loan at Alloa, scored a lot of goals, and now it’s a balance of bringing him in and utilising him a little bit with us or do we loan him out again and let him play another 15-20 games. 

“The plan is to keep him for another couple of weeks, hopefully by then we’ve recruited another forward. Euan can then go back out and hopefully he’ll sign a contract extension, come back in the summer and give himself a shot to get in and around the first team. 

“We are in the process of renewing it, I don’t think we are very far away, so I would expect that to get over the line in the next week or two. He’s done very well at Alloa, I still think there’s development, but I can see the progression in him just by getting some first team football so that’ll be great for him.”

Hearts welcome St, Johnstone to Tynecastle on Tuesday and after playing in front of empty stands against Ross County on Boxing Day, Neilson is looking forward to the return of Hearts’ passionate supporters. 

“I’m really looking forward to getting back,” he said. 

“The Ross County game was difficult with no fans, so hopefully a full house on Tuesday will be massive for us. 

“The only player we have missing is [Beni] Baningime, who should be ready for involvement at the weekend. Hopefully then he can start against Celtic next week. Boycey is not quite fully fit, he’ll be on the bench. The view is to have him on the bench tomorrow night and then get him ready for Auchinleck on Saturday.”

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