Hearts have been rocked by the news that captain Christophe Berra will miss six months of action through injury. Joel Sked looks at how Hearts will cope.
Hearts fans had become accustomed to watching Christophe Berra put his body in awkward situations on a weekly basis, picking up kicks, knocks and strains, but always able to lift himself to his feet, sort his mouthguard, limp and hobble around until any pain had eased off.
So when he lay prone on the Tynecastle Park turf on Saturday afternoon during Hearts' 1-0 win over champions Celtic they soon recognised that something wasn't right. By the time Steven Naismith had signalled to the bench that a substitution was required and the stretcher made its way onto the pitch they knew it was serious.
Footage emerged of Berra sitting awkwardly propped up by two chairs at the side of the pitch as the game continued with a brace strapped to his knee. In his post-match interview, Hearts boss Craig Levein said it was a hamstring injury. Fans' fear were slightly allayed, with the hope the injury would be weeks rather than months.
Crushing disappointment followed on Tuesday with the confirmation of the severity of the hamstring injury and the 33-year-old will miss the next six months of action.
Using social media as a gauge it would not have taken long to realise how much of a blow Berra's injury is to Hearts, especially after a strong start to the season which has brought four straight wins in league and cup and a place at the top of the Ladbrokes Premiership.
For the next six months Hearts will be without their captain, their leader, their most valuable player.
Berra's influence in the Hearts team is not easily quantifiable. You can't measure his significance in goals or assists, while the fact he's got the highest aerial success rate this season in the league or blocked the second most number of shots last campaign doesn't tell the whole story.
For Craig Levein, Berra is his voice on the field. For team-mates, Berra leads and they follow. For fans, Berra is reassurance. For opponents, Berra is this impenetrable and insurmountable force.
As the Gorgie side plodded and stumbled their way through last season under the guidance of three separate coaches, the centre-back signed from Ipswich Town was the constant, cleaning up at the club's end of season awards. He missed only 90 minutes of football all season, the final league fixture at Kilmarnock.
'Where would we be without Christophe Berra?' was a familiar question on the lips of many fans during the last campaign. It is not hyperbole to suggest the answer would be 'floundering around in the bottom six'.
Berra appeared to be a one-man defensive line. Every time cross came into the box it he was on the end of it. Every time a shot was blocked it was part of his anatomy doing the blocking. Every time Rafal Grzelak needed shouting at, Berra would be on hand to do the shouting.
The Scotland international could have been forgiven for thinking that he was the part of some elaborate experiment which sought to determine just how much responsibility he could carry on his shoulders before he finally broke down.
Aside from having an innate ability at being in the right place at the right time and a forehead which appeared to have its own force-field, Berra was also of great benefit to those around him. He brought high standards to the team. No player was allowed to coast through a game. His demands ensured that players had to remain focused. No one more so than fellow centre-back John Souttar.
The 21-year-old's career has been punctuated with 'ifs' and 'buts' despite still being more than a month away from his 22nd birthday. Both players have made reference to Berra's 'advice', although some others may call it moaning.
Souttar's progress over the past 12 months, playing alongside Berra, is evident. The former Dundee United defender has matured, both physically, mentally and defensively. The first thing fans would have noticed about the centre-back this season is his physique, it's more robust and he can no longer be deemed as slight.
Playing in such close proximity to Berra, it's as if the captain's relish for the physical battle has rubbed off on Souttar. Yet, he has not neglected the qualities which made him stand out as a teenager at United, namely the capacity to spot as pass as he did to set up Steven MacLean for a good chance against Hamilton Academical.
And Souttar did not look out of place wearing the captain's armband, marshaling the defence when Berra was replaced by Aaron Hughes against Celtic. It was arguably the player's finest game in a Hearts top.
The injury now leaves Levein with a decision to make. He has a number of options at his disposal. Enter the market for a defender, move Peter Haring to centre-back or continue with Souttar and Hughes with the possibility of using teenager Daniel Baur when required.
Consistency has been problematic for Hughes, while Haring has been a revelation as a combative and goalscoring midfielder to the surprise of many who saw him in action against Cowdenbeath in the Betfred Cup group stages.
Fans can be too eager to see their club enter the transfer market but a short-term deal or loan until Berra is fit perhaps makes most sense. The issue, as Celtic have discovered, is that the centre-back market is a tricky one to navigate as Hearts try to find an Andy Thorn figure, who was successful in a League Cup victory over Celtic in 1996 after Hearts were bereft of defenders.
A loan deal from England makes sense. However, Northern Ireland's Gareth McAuley is currently a free agent having left West Brom last season. The 38-year-old has played more than 200 times in the Premier League and would perhaps best replicate the qualities of Berra.
Whatever happens between now and the close of the transfer window in Scotland on August 31, Hearts fans will already have an eye on six months' time, when they can welcome back their leader, captain and reassurance.