Games, games and more games: how Harry Souttar became a Socceroos’ regular in his early 20s

Paying your dues, taking your lumps, and putting in the hours isn’t exactly the most novel concept in sports — even Michael Jordan had to ride the bus. And Socceroo defender Harry Souttar is certainly no exception. 

Since being plucked from relative obscurity by Graham Arnold to represent the Olyroos at the 2019 AFC U23 Championships in Cambodia, Souttar has quickly become a ubiquitous presence in Australia’s national teams — present for the Socceroos throughout their 2022 World Cup qualification campaign and playing for the U23s at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. 

On Friday, the near-two meter tall centreback started next to Trent Sainsbury as the Socceroos comfortably dispatched China 3-0; giving their third phase of AFC World Cup qualification — in which the top two teams from both groups will automatically qualify for Qatar — the perfect start. He and the group will now head to South East Asia to take on Vietnam on Tuesday.

See Also: Australia’s record-setting win over China was needed ahead of tough Vietnam match

At just 22-years-of-age, Arnold’s Aberdeen-born giant was comfortably the youngest player in the starting XI for that fixture and playing in what was just his sixth senior international. Nonetheless, thanks to the options afforded to him by his development across Scotland and England, he was far from a deer caught in the headlights: his tender age belying the amount of senior football he has already been exposed to in his young career. 

Cutting his teeth in the youth ranks of Dundee United, Souttar made his senior debut for the Tangerines as a 17-year-old back in May of 2016 as he started at centreback in a 3-3 draw with Partick Thistle (former Olyroo Ryan Edwards was on the scoresheet for the Jags).

Subsequently attracting the interest of Stoke City, he secured a move south of the border three months later and played for the Potters youth team and featuring for the seniors in Football League Trophy and League Cup action. Nonetheless, with regular first-team action still a bridge too far, loan moves at Ross County and Fleetwood Town were organised — Souttar becoming the first Australian to ever win the EFL Young Player of the Month with the latter in February 2020. 

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After being battle-hardened by senior football, he then returned to the Championship for the 2020-21 season and became a fixture in Stoke’s backline: making 44 appearances across all competitions and earning a new, long-term contract at The Britannia. Now a regular presence in Michael O’Neill’s team as it seeks promotion back into the Premier League, his odyssey across various teams and leagues means that the Souttar has played in 118 senior competitive club matches — plus a sizable number of youth games — since that Dundee United debut. 

“[The loan spells were] so, so important,” Souttar said. “Especially at a young age, I always got told that you’ve got to play as many games as you can. 

“When I came down to Stoke at 17, 18, the first thing that one of the first team boys, Charlie Adams, said to me was ‘get yourself out on loan, go and play, there’s no point in playing U23 football, get yourself out a loan and get that men’s experience.’

“Because at the end of the day, 23s football is good up to a certain point but men’s football is where you’ve got to be playing. 

“There’s something at stake every week. There are three points, there are people’s livelihoods that work in the club — if the club’s not doing well. There are just so many things you don’t get in U23 football. 

“Going on loan to Ross County when I was 19 and then Fleetwood for two seasons, it’s different experiences. I’ll pick up so many things from those experiences that I’ll bring back to my club and hopefully my country as well.”

The concept of young players unable to break into the first team being sent out on loan isn’t a novel concept in football. In Britain, Jack Grealish spent time on loan at Notts County before establishing himself in Aston Villa’s first team, Daniel Sturridge was loaned from Chelsea to Bolton and Harry Kane famously had stints with Leyton Orient, Millwall, Norwich and Leicester City before becoming one of the best strikers in the world with Spurs. 

However, with Australian football, even in relative terms, nowhere near the size or level of the cultural dominance of its British counterpart, the options for youngsters in the elite pathway to do similar in Australia have been limited at best — a shortfall in games the result. In contrast to the Souttar, fellow dual Olyroo and Socceroo representative Denis Genreau (22) has featured in just 59 professional games since debuting for Melbourne City in January 2017, while Connor Metcalfe (21) has played 52 games since debuting in January 2018. 

Football Australia’s 2020 document  ‘XI Principles For The Future of Australian Football’ emphasised the need for the provision of greater match minutes for young players, the need for which was reinforced by reports on the ‘performance gap’ that had developed in youth development in both the men’s and women’s game.

Reforms to the domestic match calendar and national premiers leagues have been floated as possible means of addressing this void and the national federation is currently engaged in the planning stages of a national second tier competition that would provide more minutes and developmental opportunities for young players — Souttar’s experience a textbook example of players developing themselves in the lower tiers before excelling at higher levels.

Performance gap reports flagging the lack of games played by Australia’s youth international sides compared to other nations, particularly in Asia, an increase in elite games for Australian junior sides has been mooted — although these plans have been largely mothballed in the face of COVID. 

Acknowledging that the previous Y-League format was simply “not fit for purpose” the Australian Professional Leagues, who now control the unbundled professional tier of Australian football, have also flagged reforms of its youth league — although have yet to provide any detail on what those changes may look like. APL clubs have also expressed interest in having their youth sides compete in a national second-tier competition — a prospect that has been met with resistance from existing, non-A-League sides that covet a place in such a competition. Loan moves between A-League clubs have also recently been introduced: Ramy Najjarine, Moudi Najjar and Joey Champness all loaned out to other clubs during the 2020-21 season. 

Thanks to the contraction of the salary cap and the challenges COVID presented towards recruitment, the 2020-21 season also saw an explosion of minutes for young players — 23 of Genreau’s afformentioned 59 games and 24 of Metcalfe’s 52 coming in that campaign — but whether this represents a new paradigm or will recede in the face of more normal conditions remains an open question.

For his part, Souttar, at just 22 and having never lived in Australia, is loathe to come across as prescribing his own views on what the land of his mother’s birth could do or should do to provide more games and more minutes to young players.

Nonetheless, much like his national team boss, he’s unapologetic in his belief that finding a way to consistently play games is the most important thing. 

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“I think that everyone’s got a view of it. It’s not really for me to say whether I think they should be playing more games or not,” Souttar said. “I’ve not lived in Australia and I don’t know the ins and outs of all the things you could say. 

“For me, all I say is you’ve just got to go and play as much as you can because every game is an experience and a learning opportunity. I’ve made so many mistakes in the games I’ve played over there, but I’ve done some OK things as well so you’ll have a mixture of both. 

“But the more experience you get the better a player you’ll become.”

Nonetheless, whatever ends up happening in Australian football, Souttar’s toil across the British pyramid has allowed him to become a key contributor to Graham Arnold’s Socceroos; starting his fourth straight Socceroos game in Friday morning’s win over China — a game in which he and defensive partner Sainsbury were provided scant opportunity to demonstrate their defensive capabilities by Zhong Guo Dui. 

After repulsing an opening spell of pressure, the Socceroos were comfortable winners over coach Li Tie’s disappointing side, riding two goals in two minutes from Awer Mabil and Martin Boyle and a second-half strike from Mitch Duke to a comfortable win. 

“When you’ve got the midfield that we’ve got in Ajdin [Hrustic], Aaron [Mooy], Tommy [Rogic], and Jacko [Jackson Irvine], these guys have got such quality on the ball, it makes my job easier,” Souttar said of the China game. 

“Just give them the ball — don’t complicate it. 

“I think we got the movement patterns a little bit better [after the opening exchanges], finding a little bit more space and the way they were pressing, our full-backs were on all the time and after the ten-minute mark, we got them on the ball more. 

“It was quite a comfortable game after that and it probably should have been a bit more.”

Missing assistants René Meulensteen and Tony Vidmar, without several A-League-based regulars and having been afforded just two training sessions, the Socceroos weren’t in a position to turn their noses up at the acquiescent nature of the Chinese performance.

Nonetheless, Souttar says that they won’t allow the comfortable nature of Friday morning affect their mindset in their coming meeting with Vietnam on Tuesday — a day in which the forecast for Hanoi is for 32 degrees and thunderstorms.  

“I know it’ll be very hot. But we’ve played in Kuwait in the summer and I think the boys are used to that now — we won’t make that an excuse,” said the Socceroos centre-back. 

“Today and tomorrow, before the game, we’ll do our due diligence on Vietnam and we’ll see their strengths and weaknesses but for the game, it’s mostly about us and what threat we carry to them.”

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Header Image Credit: Football Australia

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