Taken from Saturday's programme with Gillingham, David Mitchell caught up with on-loan Stoke City defender Harry Souttar after his impressive start to life at Highbury...
Harry Souttar looked battle-hardened when we met, an injury over the left eye the result of a stray Luton elbow. The Cod Army look up to Harry, in every sense. Since arriving on loan from Stoke City at the end of January, the six foot six Scot has been at the heart of four defensive performances which have seen only one goal conceded from open play.
A heroic block towards the end of the Burton Albion game seven days ago helped preserve Fleetwood’s three points.
The twenty-year old is aiming high but his early influences are very much rooted at local level back in Scotland.
“I have always been a Brechin City supporter and watched them regularly with Dad, who played for them, and John, my older brother. I lived in a little village called Luthermuir, five or ten minutes away. I remember playing in the park with John. We were competitive! There was a pub team in the village but Brechin City was the main team locally.”
Harry’s early heroes were Brechin strikers Charlie King, Chris Templeman, Iain Russell and Rory McAllister.
“I just thought they were brilliant to watch. Brechin had been in League One for eight or nine years then got promoted to the Championship through the play-offs two years ago. That was a brilliant achievement for the whole town. We are a small community and the players were part-time.”
With his height, Harry could have been a force on the basketball court but it has always been football that has been paramount through school.
“Originally, I was thinner and gangly. I was around thirteen or fourteen when I started growing. Luthermuir Primary and Mearns Academy were both largely football-playing schools. Luthermuir had only seventy pupils but one year we were the fifth best in Scotland. I loved school.
"We got in a lot of football at break and lunchtimes, then it was straight out to the park to play. It was just before PS4s and XBox came out so I’m kind of glad I was at school when I was.
“I started playing Under 8’s and 9’s at Brechin City on Saturdays and Sunday mornings. We went two years unbeaten and I know that a lot of the boys went into Youth Football.
"I signed for Celtic around this time but there was an agreement that I could still play for Brechin as home was so far away. The connection came from a Summer School camp in Forfar. One of the Celtic scouts invited me along.
“Martin Miller at Celtic was a brilliant coach and a good all-round guy. I can’t thank him enough for what he did for me and my family. Ian Cathro was another. He had Cathro Academy in Dundee and I went on a Wednesday night. My brother also went, as did Ryan Gauld who is at Hibernian and Scott Fraser who played for Burton Albion against us last week.
"I was always a defender, apart from my very young days. I had started at right back then went into a central role.”
In July 2013, Harry joined Dundee United’s Academy.
“I worked towards my scholarship, which we call ‘apprentice’ in Scotland. In February 2015, I played alongside brother John, for the first time since an Under 10s match against Hamilton! It was an Under 20’s game and I think that he was coming back from injury. He was in the first team at the time.
"We won 2-0 and I scored a header that day. It was a special occasion for us and the family.”
In the same month came a Scottish call-up, for the Under 17s against Romania.
“That was another proud moment. I played reasonably well and we got the win.”
Harry began to feature in a number of match day squads for Dundee United, eventually making his first team debut on 10th May 2016, against Partick Thistle in the Scottish Premiership.
“I will always remember that game. I was alongside Sean Dillon who had been a big influence on me. He had lost his voice that day, which wasn’t ideal, but he was a big help, nevertheless, to all of us youngsters trying to make our way in the game.
"I think five or six of us made our debuts around the time that I did. I was really pleased that we all got through together. I can’t speak highly enough of what Sean did to help us.”
The season ended memorably with a goal at Kilmarnock, in a 4-2 win. Having come off the bench in the 83rd minute, Harry scored just three minutes later!
“As a tall centre-half I had been kind of worried that I hadn’t scored in any game that season when perhaps people might have expected me to. Dave Bowman, my Under 20’s coach, was at the Kilmarnock game and gave me a congratulatory punch on the arm afterwards. It had been a poor season for the club as we were relegated to the Championship but at least I finished on a high.”
“Stoke City had been interested throughout the season and a couple of bids had been rejected. When the third one came along I had a word with Ray McKinnon, the Dundee United manager at the time. Ray was very supportive. He was aware of the big chance that English football offered with such a club as Stoke and didn’t want to stand in my way. I can’t thank him enough for that.”
A three year deal was delayed as FIFA approval was sought due to the situation regarding cross-border switches for players under the age of eighteen.
“That was frustrating because I had to wait until January 2017. However, the quality of the training facilities and the people within the club was worth the wait. One main reason I went there was the planning that was being put in place for my development and it is all coming to fruition now.”
Harry’s debut came in the following August in the EFL Cup against Rochdale.
“I came on in the last half hour and we won 4-0.”
Three EFL Trophy games followed before Harry temporarily headed back north of the border.
“Stoke wanted to give me a little bit of security with a new deal but also wanted me to get game time and I went on loan to Ross County in the Scottish Premiership.
"I got thirteen games and it was brilliant to get my first run of matches in professional football. Owen Coyle and Stuart Kettlewell were big helps. To train all week knowing you would start on Saturday was a really good feeling. Every point mattered and that was motivating.
“I knew that Fleetwood were interested in me. After the Ross County experience I was keen for more game time. I’ve loved it here since day one. The dressing room is probably the best I’ve been in.
“Clint Hill has taught me a lot about body shape and how to play in a back line. I was relieved more than anything to get my debut so quickly because I knew that both Craig Morgan and Ash Eastham are great players. Morgs had a little injury so I went straight in. I was delighted to be on the pitch and to keep a clean sheet against a quality side in Charlton Athletic.
“Ash has emphasized how important it is to keep a clean sheet and provide the foundation for the attacking players to go on and win the games. He is a leader who is so solid and good on the ball. He’s a leader off the park as well and has helped me a lot.
“Bradford wasn’t the prettiest game to watch but they are the type of games we need to win to make progress. We knew Luton Town were the form side. Their free kick had that bit of quality that the top sides have. I thought we did really well, though.
"The main difference that I’m finding between here and Scotland is in the gap between the top and bottom sides. In Scotland it is much bigger. Here everyone can beat everyone else and each game is like a cup final.
“I’m really enjoying myself. I don’t think I could do anything else so I’m going to keep my head down, work hard and not take anything for granted.”