John Souttar has landed a lucrative pre-contract deal with Rangers, and with it a platform to take his burgeoning Scotland career to a new level.
However, Paul Ritchie fears he has also signed up for five months of hassle at Hearts – unless the Ibrox club stump up a serious fee for him now.
The Premiership champions are weighing up making a bid to bring the 25-year-old into Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s group during this Transfer Window.
That’s a must for the player, says Ritchie, who reckons Souttar’s World Cup play-off place will be in peril unless Rangers rescue him now.
He believes Souttar could be left on the sidelines at Tynecastle, not playing until the summer – or taking stick from angry punters for weeks on end if picked by Robbie Neilson.
🆕 Club statement: John Souttar
The club reiterates that John is an important member of the first-team squad and will remain so until the end of the season unless a significant and satisfactory offer is made during the January transfer window.
— Heart of Midlothian FC (@JamTarts) January 14, 2022
Ritchie was grateful to go from Gorgie to Bolton Wanderers on loan for the second half of 1999/2000, after it became obvious he was Rangers-bound at the end of his Jambos deal.
But having actually signed a contract with the Light Blues, there’s no such option available for Souttar.
Ritchie cautioned: “If there’s no deal between clubs, John will spend the next six months in a very difficult situation.
“If he doesn’t get sold, it won’t be a pleasant environment to be involved in games.
“John knows the Hearts supporters. They love the club, would die for their club and are not slow to tell people how they feel, as I know myself.
“Robbie Neilson rates him very highly. If he feels a fit John Souttar is mentally capable for the next few months, I believe he’ll play him.
“But that’s difficult for any human being, knowing he won’t be there next season, and in front of fans who won’t give him an easy ride.
“I don’t know how Hearts will treat him. We’ve seen players banished to the reserves or youth team. That’s not something I’d wish on anyone.
🆕 #RangersFC are today delighted to announce the signing of John Souttar on a pre-contract agreement from Heart of Midlothian.
— Rangers Football Club (@RangersFC) January 14, 2022
“I’m not saying that will happen, but I know from experience that the manager puts the club first. That’s why Jim Jefferies loaned me to Bolton.
“I got to play, and Jim got on with doing the best for Hearts. But it’s impossible for John to go on loan because he’s signed a pre-contract with Rangers.
“Steve Clarke won’t pick John for Scotland if he’s not playing – and rightly so. If he’s stuck on the sidelines at Tynecastle, then he misses out on the World Cup play-offs.
“That’s something you don’t want to gamble with. John will be desperate that something gets done.
“The future isn’t going to be anywhere near what Hearts need, want or deserve. But it has to be thrashed out.”
Ritchie infamously spent a miserable couple of months at Rangers under Dick Advocaat before being shipped out to Manchester City.
Yet he forecasts a bright Ibrox future for potential Rangers captain Souttar, a player he’s admired for years in maroon.
But that leaves a sour taste with Tynecastle fans, who’ve been given a tantalisingly short time to enjoy Souttar at peak form after multiple injury setbacks.
Ritchie conceded: “Playing in front of 50,000 and in Europe is hard to turn down.
“John might be happy in Scotland for the next eight to 10 years. He could be Rangers captain in two years.
“It’s great business for Rangers. But, being a Hearts fan, I think it’s a disaster for Hearts.”
“Fans say it’s a crossing of trust. They’re raging. He’s such a big piece of Hearts, and such a good player. They want success for their club, and can’t see beyond that.
“That’s real supporters. The disappointment for them is Hearts stuck by John when he was injured.
“They’ll be disappointed about not recouping proper value for him. But the football world doesn’t work like that.
“This is an individual’s career. The kid’s been through a lot, and must look out for his own future.
“He’s Craig Levein, Alan McLaren, Davie Weir – a combination of all three. If he stays fit, John has a fantastic future. He can play for Scotland many times, and be Rangers captain for a number of years.
“He’s a phenomenal passer and someone who puts his body on the line.
“He’s An all-round footballer, a warrior, and a top player.”
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