Following a standout World Cup campaign with the Socceroos, Harry Souttar revealed his mindset heading into the tournament after a lengthy injury lay-off.
A year ago, Souttar’s FIFA World Cup dream was thrown into chaos after rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament for his country in a qualifier against Saudi Arabia.
At the time he was a driving force behind the Socceroos' bid to qualify for Qatar with six goals from his first five games - and was proving to be a leading player for Stoke City in the Championship.
An 11-month lay-off with some difficult days followed, but Souttar tried to stay positive during his rehabilitation and focus on recovering in time for the FIFA World Cup Qatar. And he did just that.
A month before the start of the World Cup, Souttar started and played the first half for Stoke City’s U21s against the Nottingham Forest U21s to mark his return from injury.
From there, he built up his fitness with further appearances in the U21s and one Championship start against Luton Town to time his World Cup run perfectly.
While Souttar had played just one 90-minute senior match and a handful of appearances for Stoke’s U21s going into the tournament, he remained confident he could perform on the world stage.
“Mentally, I felt ready,” Souttar told Stoke City FC media.
Obviously, one senior game to my name in a year wasn't ideal but in my head, I was confident and ready.
“Coming up against the world champions was a really tough test. I think we started the game really well and went 1-0 up but that kind of ignited a switch for them and they turned it on.
“In the end, it was a disappointing result but as we said as a group, the best friendly that we could have had was that opening game against France. We made a few mistakes in that game, but we learnt from them and we put them right in the next games.
“We knew going into them that we would have to win at least one game and draw another to get through.”
Despite his injury lay-off, the centre-back was absolutely phenomenal throughout the Socceroos World Cup run.
Souttar won 100 per cent of his tackles and ground duels, had 50 touches, six clearances, and three blocks in Australia’s second Group D match against Tunisia. But there was one moment from his stellar display that will stick long in football fans' memories.
In the 86th minute, Taha Yassine Khenissi was charging towards goal after the Tunisian had evaded Kye Rowles, but Souttar stepped in with one of the best tackles of the entire tournament to ensure the Socceroos kept a clean sheet and secured a 1-0 victory.
From there, Souttar put in another colossal performance against Denmark to keep back-to-back clean sheets for the first time ever in a World Cup tournament and clinch Australia’s first Round of 16 appearance since 2006.
While the Socceroos went on to lose 2-1 in their Round of 16 tie against Argentina, Souttar said his World Cup experience was the pinnacle of his career.
“It was phenomenal and a little bit surreal,” Souttar said.
Growing up playing football, it was my dream to play at a World Cup. Its the pinnacle of a lot of people's careers so to do that was amazing and I don’t think it has sunk in yet.
“Some of the results ended in a disappointing way but I think we have to be proud of ourselves and how far we got.
“From a squads point of view, we wanted to be the best Socceroos team ever and that meant getting out of the group stage.
“I don’t think many people would have looked at that group and thought Australia would get out of it with six points so it was a great achievement.
“It’s one that I’m really proud of and one that I will look back on in years to come and appreciate it a lot more than I probably did at the time.”
While Souttar admitted that the defeat against Argentina was one the worst feelings he has ever had on a football pitch, he now has to turn his attention to finishing the Championship season with Stoke City.
Souttar is in line to make an appearance against Cardiff City on Sunday morning at 2am (AEDT).
“I flew in yesterday and I don’t have any injuries so I’m fully fit, ready to go,” Souttar said.
“My focus is on Cardiff and getting the three points on Saturday, simple as that.
“The World Cup has helped me with getting a little bit fitter but I don’t think I will be back to full fitness until after 10-15 games.
“It will take its time but I’m raring to go.”