THE biggest compliment you could pay John Souttar about his first two matches as a Scotland international player is that you would never have guessed they were his first two matches as a Scotland international player. Few of our players have had their credentials for a spot in the national team interrogated in such extensive fashion by the age of 21 but the manner in which the Hearts centre half acquitted himself has muted his critics.

While both Belgium and Albania succeeded in creating chances, the damage tended to be self-inflicted and it simply isn’t Souttar’s style to waste a pass, his input appreciated by the Tartan Army who are used to a more agricultural type of centre half play. Clearly edging ahead of Celtic’s Jack Hendry for that spot on the right side of the three, Alex McLeish’s formation seems perfect for him.

“We said to judge us on Monday,” said Souttar. “We meant it. We believe in ourselves. We believe in the manager and how he wants us to play. He wants to play football and it suits me down to a tee. I enjoyed it. Playing for your country is something I dreamed of when I was a boy.

“It is a step up,” he added. “In terms of the day to day, we are very professional at Hearts, with the way the gaffer works. It’s as good as here - but it’s a different type of football. On Friday, I headed the ball about three times. In the SPFL, I do that in the first 30 seconds. It’s a different sort of test but it’s one that I really enjoy.”

Part of a Dundee United reunion in the national team environment along with the likes of Johnny Russell, Stuart Armstrong and captain Andy Robertson, there was always a buzz about this young central defender with the cultured right foot as he came through under Jackie McNamara, the only problem was that Mixu Paatelainen – who shunted him into a defensive midfield role – appeared to conclude that he played too much football at the wrong time. A bit like the arguments over John Stones with England, it has taken the stubbornness and belief of Craig Levein, who witnessed him graduating from Ian Cathro’s coaching clinics up at Tannadice as a boy, to let him play his best football again. The truth is that every team worth their salt these days features ball-playing centre halves. Playing in his first competitive match for Scotland puts an end once and for all to the suggestion Souttar could wind up playing international football for Australia instead.

“It’s been a long wait for me,” said Souttar. “I have been linked with the squad for a long time but the fact I went through all that has made it sweeter and more enjoyable. Now at 21, I feel ready to mix it physically and mentally in these sort of fixtures

“It’s just like the old days at Tannadice,” he added. “It’s brilliant to have familiar faces. Did we ever speak about all making it with Scotland? Not at all but there are four of us here just now and we are just missing Gauldy who was probably the best one out of the lot of us at the time. I am sure his time will come.”

It was typical of the role Levein has had in his career that, even as the Hearts manager recovers from a heart complaint, he should find the time to send the 21-year-old a text of encouragement ahead of his Scotland debut on Friday. No wonder the 21-year-old should leave Hampden on Monday night paying tribute to his club manager and hoping that his two caps might have helped put a smile back on his face.

“Everyone loves the gaffer,” said Souttar. “I can’t speak highly enough of everything he has done for me and everyone around the club. It [his heart problem] was a massive shock. He is a huge character in the building and I’m just glad personally he is back. He texted me before the game on Friday so I’ll be glad to see him at training. He put himself on the line to bring me to Hearts. At times when I wasn’t playing well, he has backed me. He has put a lot of trust in me. I was upset when I heard the news. Hopefully my two caps will have cheered him up a bit and I will see him on Thursday.”

It isn’t just Souttar who returns to Tynecastle with a spring in his step. Steven Naismith, with seven goals already in a Hearts jersey this season, might just have played himself into a starting role for his country going forward. “Naisy was unbelievable again,” said Souttar. “For the club to have Scotland’s top goalscorer, the main man now, is brilliant. It can only help us at club level. I can’t speak highly enough of him as a professional and as a player, and how much I have learned from him. I think everyone has. At this age, basically scoring a double and leading the line for Scotland, playing like that. You’ve got to live your life well and he does that. He’s an incredible professional so I’m delighted for him.”