Loyalty is a volatile commodity in football.
Jerry Seinfeld once joked that fans of team sports are actually “rooting for the clothes” due to the rate of player turnover, which can see a fan favourite become an overnight folk devil by virtue of him wearing a different team’s shirt.
It’s not far off the mark. Yet, football fans are notoriously selective when it comes to who they demand loyalty from and in what circumstances. When a shit player’s lengthy deal is terminated early, the reactions range from indifferent shrugs to unbridled joy, yet if that same player chooses to stay with the club and honour the duration of his contract (and we’ve seen plenty do that at Hearts in the last six years) the player is accused of being a wage thief and his professional pride is called into question.
Generally speaking, loyalty to the club only enters the equation when the player is considered an asset; when there’s potentially something in it for us further down the line. In such circumstances, that loyalty can be exchanged for a significant transfer fee or the warm fuzzy feeling that the player is moving onto a different league at a higher level thanks to how he’s performed for our club, in which case he usually leaves with the fans’ best wishes.
However, occasionally a player moves to a rival, and unless that player in question is Faycal Rherras, it is rare for fans to respond to that with warmth, even less so when that player signs a pre-contract agreement midway through the season.
When John Souttar’s pre-arranged move to Rangers was confirmed on Friday night, marking the first time anything “Soapy” had been near Ibrox in the Glasgow club’s history, the short statement put out by Hearts in response said more than just the words on the screen. After it seemed certain for months that Souttar was set on a move south of the border, this development came as a surprise to most of a maroon persuasion, including, it seems, those within the walls of Tynecastle. A particularly unwelcome development if the tone of the statement was anything to go by.
It was a tone that reverberated around Hearts social media with varying degrees of severity throughout the evening, ranging from revisionism (denial of Souttar’s ability) to gloriously petty (giving one star TripAdvisor ratings to his coffee shop) to downright inexcusable (wishing serious injury on him).
Others played the loyalty card, suggesting Souttar owed that to Hearts. But what would that loyalty look like? To most fans looking at it idealistically, it meant signing an extension and eventually departing for a significant fee to a club down south, thereby repaying the club for the faith, time and money invested in him as a player. To those looking at it realistically, it meant (at the very least) not moving to Rangers or Celtic.
For most level-headed fans, it’s widely accepted that unless a player grew up supporting the club he plays for, he is unlikely to share the same depth of feeling as the people in the stands. People also accept that it’s a short career and that players are essentially contractors who would jump at the chance to double or triple their salaries if offered the chance. We all would.
A lot of people will even grudgingly accept that there’s a food chain within Scottish football and that in addition to more money, Rangers and Celtic will always have silverware and the prospect of Champions League football to entice players away from clubs like Hearts. Plenty have done it in the past – a handful have even redeemed themselves by returning to the club at a later date – and we’ve always moved on.
Nonetheless, it is easy to see why the Souttar situation leaves such a sour taste. The fact that it’s Rangers. The fact that he’s agreed to join them when he still has half a season left playing for us. The prospect of receiving absolutely no financial return on the club’s six-year investment in him, coupled with the grim realisation that Rangers will likely make a significant profit on him at a later date.
Nobody is expecting unconditional loyalty here, but had the club not kept his career on life support through his multiple major injuries, had he not been given the environment in which to develop when he was fit, it’s highly unlikely this lucrative move would have happened for him. Souttar owes the club a debt of gratitude for that, so for things to play out as they have, it’s understandable that many have found it difficult to swallow.
Of course, it is also true that it was just much in the club’s interest to provide that support at the time. Not only was Souttar under contract, but he had always been considered a sellable asset during his time at the club. Given the club’s initial investment in him and the time spent developing him, it made sense to protect that as best as possible. Until it didn’t.
That Souttar was allowed to reach this stage of his contract is something the club also has to take responsibility for. Given his sketchy injury record, which was still taking its toll as recently as last season in the Championship, it is understandable that the club would want to protect its own interests by not risking a lengthy extension for a player who had yet to make it through a full season in one piece. However, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a promising asset leave for significantly less than their market value, with the likes of Aaron Hickey, Callum Paterson and even Jamie Walker the first time round leaving for cut-price deals as their contracts neared an end.
Obviously the club can’t force these guys to sign new deals and it’s always going to be more difficult to hold onto them when bigger clubs and leagues come calling, but for all the talk we’ve heard about the club developing youth to sell on for a profit, we seem to have been alarmingly complacent when keeping on top of their contract situations.
Granted, there is always a risk with handing over-inflated deals to youngsters – they may peak early, get injured or let it affect their egos – but if a club like Hearts wants to model itself as youth-centric and self-sustaining, it also needs to have something significant to show for its efforts. It’s a fine balance to strike, but hopefully an area Joe Savage and his backroom team will be looking to sort out in the coming seasons.
As for John Souttar, he’ll go west with no fan’s blessing, but whether that happens this month or at the end of the season remains to be seen. Rangers reportedly want him now, so it would be surprising if they didn’t dip their toe in the water with a lowball offer at some stage in the next week or so. In the meantime, the club and Robbie Neilson in particular have reiterated that the club’s focus is on consolidating third and that in order to do that, it needs its best players, including Souttar.
If Neilson stays true to his word and starts Souttar against St Johnstone at Tynecastle, it’s hard to imagine the reception from the home fans being anything other than hostile. Just how long that hostility endures – and its subsequent effect on the rest of Souttar’s team-mates – could be the gauge for how open the Hearts hierarchy will be to cut ties before the transfer window closes.