Harry Souttar back just in time to play for his late brother and the Socceroos

The big man is back. All two metres of him, hunching slightly to get through the door. Harry Souttar has the spring in his step of somebody who knows they have made it after all. “It was a long 12 months,” he says.

A lot has happened since November of last year, when the Stoke City centre-half ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament playing a World Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia.

There was a long flight back to the UK before surgery and countless hours of rehab. This June, Australia finally qualified for the World Cup via the playoffs – a key motivation to fast-track his recovery. In August, he was mourning his older brother, Aaron, a talented golfer who died at 42 after suffering from motor neurone disease.

Souttar arrived in Qatar with two new tattoos, both of which encapsulate what he holds dear. “My brother passed away three and a half months ago, so I’ve got him on my arm just to remind me every day what a brilliant person he was,” he says. “And I got my cap number and the [Australian] coat of arms on my calf.”

Glance down and there it is, inked proof he is Socceroo No 606. Souttar’s timely return is welcome in more ways than one. The 24-year-old is a well-liked member of the playing group, to the point that he was flown into camp before the decisive qualifier against Peru simply to boost morale.

He is also potentially the defensive difference in a tough World Cup group, his quickness of foot and skills on the ball belying the length of his limbs and his calm decision-making an invaluable settling force while facing big opponents such as France.

Whether he is thrown straight against the reigning champions or saved for Tunisia and Denmark is unclear, given he only made his senior comeback in the English Championship on 8 November – one day after he was named in the World Cup squad.

“You have doubts in your head along the way of being a year out,” Souttar says. “There’s obviously ups and downs, but I don’t think I ever thought I wasn’t going to make it. I always knew, with the hard work I put in to get here, I was going to do it in the end.”

It is hardly surprising these days to hear a Scottish accent wearing green and gold, given this team is becoming very much a blend of the two countries. Like attackers Martin Boyle and Jason Cummings, Souttar is Scotland born and bred, growing up in the small eastern village of Luthermuir and starting his professional career at Dundee United alongside his other brother and fellow defender, John.

But while John, 26, stayed local, forging a career at Hearts before being capped for Scotland and joining Rangers in the off-season, Souttar moved to central England and found himself the subject of some close monitoring by Socceroos coach Graham Arnold, who knew his mother was born in Australia.

He had played for Scotland’s underage sides but not pledged his full international allegiance. Arnold made his move in March 2019, calling him up to his under-23s before handing him a senior debut that October in a World Cup qualifier against Nepal. He scored twice, and by the end of the first phase of qualifying had six goals from his first five games – as a central defender. He also developed a reputation for prowess on set-pieces – an unfashionable yet efficient way to win games.

“Set pieces is a massive weapon, and if you’ve got tools to utilise it I think anything would do,” Souttar says. “Obviously we’ve got some great deliverers of the ball. Aziz [Behich] is one of them – he can put it on a sixpence. Obviously I’ve scored against some of the smaller-height nations, so to do it on the big stage would be great.”

But not, he says, because he wants to impress future club suitors and reignite the Premier League interest in him before the injury.

“I don’t think you can go into any tournament thinking that. Obviously as a player it’s nice to get praise, but you’re also only one match away from from criticism. So that stuff for me is irrelevant.”

While Souttar is not guaranteed to start against France – likely alongside Kye Rowles – he appears closer than Boyle (knee) and Ajdin Hrustic (ankle), who are now cutting it fine. That appears especially the case for Boyle, for whom Arnold has already flown in Marco Tilio as cover should he require a injury replacement on the eve of the opening match on Tuesday night (Wednesday 6am AEDT).

At training on Saturday night the pair performed light duties on a seperate pitch from the main squad.

“I saw Boyley running yesterday just through the window of my room and Ajdin as well,” says striker Jamie Maclaren. ”From my eyes they looked good but I think the medical staff will make a call whenever they can.

“But they are two huge players for us and exciting players and players that have played a big part in the last four years. And from where I stand now, I think they’ll be okay.”