HEARTS have been urged to agree a fee with Rangers for John Souttar before the end of the January transfer window and prevent unrest in the stands from having a detrimental impact on their performances as they bid to secure a European place.

Fans of the Tynecastle club reacted furiously on Friday when it emerged that Souttar had signed a pre-contract agreement with their cinch Premiership rivals and was set to move to Ibrox in the summer.

The Scotland centre half has been plagued by a succession of serious injuries – he has suffered from ankle and Achilles tendon problems - during the past two seasons and the Gorgie outfit have helped him to regain full fitness.

Hearts, who return to action after the winter shutdown with a league game against St Johnstone at home tomorrow night, issued a statement last week stressing that it will take a “significant and satisfactory” offer for them to part company with the defender this month.

Former Hearts captain and midfielder Gary Mackay was disappointed when he learned that Souttar, who has earned a recall to the national team on the back of his standout displays this season, would be departing.

Mackay, who now works as an agent and helped broker the £1.5m transfer of Lee Wallace from Hearts to Rangers back in 2011, is unsure if the Ibrox club will be prepared to pay £500,000 for a player they can get for nothing in July.

However, he believes, with Robbie Neilson’s side currently in third place in the Premiership and pushing for a place in the UEFA Conference League qualifying rounds, it would be for the best if Souttar moves on in the next fortnight. 

“I hope that Hearts and Rangers can come to an agreement and the lad is away by the end of January,” he said. “It has been done early enough for it to happen. When a pre-contract is signed before the midway point in the January transfer window, you have got enough time to get something agreed.

“I am not aware how Rangers are fixed financially now. Did they want John to sign a pre-contract so they can bring him in during the summer? Or do they want him in right now because they feel he can enhance the team as they try to win the title.

“It looks like they will lose Connor Goldson come the end of the season. But they are not going to lose a centre back in January. Do they just want to make sure they have a replacement for him come the summer? If that is the case, they will not be in a hurry to hand over any kind of cash.”

Mackay added: “I feel for Hearts and can understand how the supporters feel. They have rehabilitated him . But it is a really complicated situation for all parties involved. I don’t think you can blame anyone. It is just the way the modern game is. If John decided to move on in the summer they could get nothing. At least now they can get something for him.

“Has he signed a pre-contract because he wants to move now? Or is it because he wants security about what the future holds given the difficulties with injuries that he has had? There could be a number of reasons.”

Mackay has been saddened to see the online “vitriol” which has been aimed in the direction of Hearts vice-captain Souttar since it emerged that he had signed a pre-contract agreement with their bitter rivals Rangers.

He feels the defender – who could line up against the Scottish champions at Ibrox next month - will be targeted by his own club’s supporters in matches now and will need to have a thick skin to maintain his form.

“I know that John is a good footballer,” he said. “But it will take a strong personality to deal with any abuse that he gets for signing a contract with another club. He has certainly shown a strong mentality to recover from the injuries he has had. But it is difficult to assess how he will react to this situation.

“I don’t think John will be received particularly well by Heart supporters in any game he plays for them between now and when he leaves. The big thing with them is the rehabilitation aspect. As I say, I can understand how they feel. But I don’t like the vitriol that is posted on websites. Some people hide behind laptops.

“The fact he has chosen to go to Rangers is a big factor as well. If John had signed a pre-contract with, say, Blackburn Rovers in the English Championship there wouldn’t have been the same level of negativity.

“But if he stays beyond January, Hearts need to make full use of him. He has made a career choice and I am sure he was understanding of what the reaction would be when he put pen to paper on this pre-contract. You would hope that John can be a strong professional, and he will have to be a strong professional, if Robbie chooses to play him.”

Mackay, who made a club record 640 appearances for Hearts between 1980 and 1997, has been impressed with how the Championship champions have performed in their first season back in the top flight.

He is confident that supporters’ unhappiness with Souttar will not affect their displays in the coming months if the player does stay until the end of the 2021/22 campaign.

But if the man who scored against Denmark on his return to the Scotland team in a Qatar 2022 qualifier at Hampden in November is subjected to abuse then he would like to see current skipper Craig Gordon speak out in public to calm the situation. 

“If John stays at Hearts beyond January and is getting flak then maybe it will help if Craig comes out and asks fans to get behind him,” he said. “Maybe they would, because of the esteem that Craig is held in, listen to him.

“They would understand that he is saying it for the right reasons, because he doesn’t want anything to affect the team as they try to finish as high up the Premiership as they possibly can.”