As was expected, when John Souttar took to the Tynecastle pitch last night, for the first time since the defender signed a pre-contract with Rangers, he was roundly booed by many Hearts’ fans inside the stadium. 

From the moment the Scotland internationalist’s name was read out, it seemed it could become a difficult evening for Souttar. 

To his credit, the 25-year-old performed well as Hearts comfortably got the better of St Johnstone, who remain rooted to the bottom of the cinch Premiership table, keeping a clean sheet in the process.

Hearts manager Robbie Neilson had a difficult decision to make when choosing his starting XI. Knowing Souttar was likely to receive a feisty reception from the Hearts’ fans, he had the choice to leave him out of the side, in the hope that it wouldn’t affect the rest of the team, or start him, knowing the quality he possesses was sure to increase Hearts’ chances of winning.

In the end, he opted for the latter, and it proved the correct call as Souttar turned in a professional performance, even clapping the Hearts supporters when making his way down the tunnel at full time. 

cinch Premiership – Heart of Midlothian v St Johnstone 18/01/2022 Pic shows: St Johnstone’s Turkish striker, Nadir Ciftci, comes close as Hearts play host to St Johnstone in the cinch Premiership at Tynecastle Park, Edinburgh. Credit: Ian Jacobs

After the match Neilson doubled down on his decision, praising Souttar for his mentality and the way he went about his business on the field. 

Neilson said: “He’s come back from three career threatening injuries. I only know a few people who have come back from a single Achilles rupture never mind three.

“You know he’s very strong mentally, he can blank out the background noise and get on with the game. I thought he played very well.

“I’ve said all along the club is bigger than any individual player, coach or manager. The focus has to be on progressing the club forward, getting the three points, European qualification, winning cups.

“That has to be the end goal for us all.

“Whenever John goes, if it’s the end of the season, there is always going to be that in the background.

“But as a club we have to focus on what’s best for the club and what’s best for the club is winning football matches and putting the best team out we can to win those matches.

“Because the more we win, the more successful we can be. We can get into Europe and the club can push on from there.

“But you pay your money, you come and, to an extent, you can say what you want. To an extent.

“John understands the situation. We understand it. But I keep coming back to it being about the football club moving forward.

“At this moment in time what’s best is that we put our best players on the pitch to win games and take us forward. What a massive achievement it would be to get promoted from the Championship and qualify for Europe in the first year.”

The game itself was won by two Josh Ginnelly strikes, however the impressive Barrie McKay was the architect for both. 

Hearts’ top goalscorer Liam Boyce was only fit enough for the bench and Ben Woodburn was left out of the squad altogether, so once again Ginnelly played through the middle, to great effect. 

“I was delighted,” continued Neilson. “You are always unsure where you’ll be after three weeks off and whether it will be a slow start.

“The pressure was on as we were expected to win so I was pleased we managed to do that.

“St Johnstone had a couple of chances, and we had a penalty claim. There are still areas to work on but once we got the goal we were quite comfortable.

“I thought McKay and Ginnelly did very well. We spoke about the movement at half time, to get Ginnelly inside to use his pace because he can be a threat in that area.

“I was delighted with the two of them.”

With Motherwell, Aberdeen and Hibernian all dropping points, it meant Hearts extended their lead in third spot to eight points. 

“They are the best nights,” Neilson smiled. 

“When you come in after the game and teams have dropped points here and there and you get yourself a bit further up.

“We are eight clear in third place. The aim for us now has to be up the way. We are nine behind Celtic. We’ve got them here in the next league game and a chance to get a wee bit closer again.

“If we can move up the way to these top teams then we don’t need to worry about what’s behind us.”