Craig Levein

Venue: Tynecastle Park, Edinburgh Date: Saturday, 31 July Time: 20:00 BST
Coverage: Listen live on Sportsound and follow live text commentary on the BBC Sport website & app

Pain, suffering, and wretched misfortune. Hearts have had it all in recent years, but even their ills pale in comparison to the plight of centre-back John Souttar.

Now both are back in the top flight and embarking on a positive new chapter. It’s a near miracle the 24-year-old is playing at all, with his Hearts career marred by serious injuries.

There’s been a hip problem, ankle surgery and last summer the luckless Souttar snapped his Achilles tendon for a third time. Careers have been curtailed by much less. To fight back the way he has shows incredible strength of character.

I remember him as a 13-year-old at Dundee United and he had that steely determination even then.

This may sound strange, but I link a lot of Hearts’ struggles in the last few years to Souttar not being available. That’s how important he is.

When he’s absent, Hearts lose a number of things that affect the team’s efficiency. His defensive nous, anticipation, calmness on the ball in the defensive third, an ability to pass or dribble his way out and start attacks. The importance of those attributes is difficult to quantify.

If it wasn’t for his injury problems, Souttar would have 30 Scotland caps – rather than his current tally of three – and be playing in the English Premier League.

Having returned to fitness at the end of last season, Souttar played every minute of Hearts’ opening three League Cup ties before sitting out Saturday’s win over Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Hopefully an injury-free campaign beckons – nobody deserves it more.

Fit-again John Souttar has been a League Cup ever-present this season, his sixth year as a Hearts player
Fit-again John Souttar has begun his sixth year as a Hearts player by helping the team to three clean sheets in a row

Neilson needs fans’ faith in top six quest

Souttar’s presence will be integral to a Hearts side who can have realistic aims of a top-six finish on their return to the Premiership.

The supporters will expect higher than that and Robbie Neilson will be aiming for better.

Neilson’s men coasted to the Championship title while rarely clicking into top gear. The style of the play drew criticism from some supporters, but the primary concern was promotion.

The scarring of the Scottish Cup exit to Brora Rangers will take a while to heal, especially if Hearts make a slow start, but I’d categorise that as a freak result. If it had been followed by numerous defeats then it’s a different story.

Hearts losing to Brora is a really poor result and Neilson wouldn’t shirk that. But he ultimately did what he was asked to and that was get Hearts back in the top flight.

As for him being under increased pressure, there is an element of every support who don’t like the incumbent manager. That’s just the way it is.

Neilson had detractors when he was at Hearts previously, despite the fact did a wonderful job. So that tells you you’re not going to get everybody onside.

Boyce can match Robbo’s feat

Of course, Hearts should never have been demoted to the Championship in the first place. That bitterness and rancour still runs deep among the support and, if I was in the Hearts boardroom, I’d certainly be unhappy with some Premiership counterparts as they renew acquaintances.

Anything Hearts can use as a motivating factor can only be beneficial.

I’m slightly surprised Hearts haven’t added more players this summer – three have been signed so far – but they’ll be working diligently behind the scenes.

The recruitment in recent years hasn’t been as good as it should have been and, as former manager and director of football, I shoulder some blame for that. The manager lives or dies by his recruitment. And I died by mine, unfortunately.

There’s plenty to be positive about on and off the pitch at Tynecastle as the new season approaches.

In Liam Boyce, Hearts have a striker capable of scoring 20 goals in a league season for the first time since John Robertson in 1991-92. The Northern Ireland international is a good age, 30, a proven finisher and has great calmness in front of goal.

I’m a huge admirer of Peter Haring too and hope the midfielder’s injury problems are behind him. When I was manager and things were going well, Haring and Souttar were the two main reasons for that.

Anderson a huge coup

Will Hearts saviour and chair Ann Budge still have a role at the club when she hands power to fans?
Will Hearts saviour and chair Ann Budge still have a role at the club when she hands power to fans?

One of Hearts’ shrewdest new recruits won’t kick a ball. The appointment of James Anderson to the board is huge.

I think there will be big changes at the club in the years ahead and he is perfect for that. He believes in thinking about the future and developing the club to a level where they’re competing against the best teams in the league.

I have massive faith in Anderson being able to get Hearts up at the top end of the table and consistently in Europe. Looking at what he’s done in business, he’s an impressive operator and ahead of the game in most things.

His expertise will be even more crucial with Ann Budge due to hand over her majority shareholding to the Foundation of Hearts this summer.

I don’t know what happens when she hands over power, whether she will still be involved in some capacity, but she deserves lifelong membership of the board because she’s done a fantastic job.

Taking over the club in administration, she has rebuilt Hearts to a financially-sound position, redeveloped the stadium, introduced people of the calibre of Anderson to the board and supported the foundation.

She has perhaps had a raw deal at times from some supporters. If you don’t get results, you get stick – that’s one thing she quickly learned about football. I blame her managers…

Levein was talking to BBC Sport Scotland’s Martin Watt



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