Why Hearts boss Daniel Stendel's decision to axe Christophe Berra sends strong message - but the captain deserves sympathy

It is easy to understand Hearts' decision to allow Christophe Berra to leave but it shouldn't have ended this way

Tuesday, 7th January 2020, 4:45 pm
Updated Tuesday, 7th January 2020, 6:02 pm
Christophe Berra has been told he can find a new club by Hearts. Picture: SNS

Celtic had cut Hearts open. With the Tynecastle crowd wary about what was going to happen next, Leigh Griffiths edged around Ben Garuccio before meeting Christophe Berra. The Hearts captain pushed him wide and, stretching every sinew, desperately tried to stay on his feet and block but stumbled to the turf.

Michael Smith stopped the shot on the line in the second league match of the 2018/2019 season. Concern immediately switched back to Berra on the ground, a distressed hand in the air. It was unlike the centre-back to stay on the ground. Hearts fans had grown accustomed to their captain putting it all on the line - head, body, life - always picking himself up afterwards.

It took a full four minutes for the player to exit the pitch on a stretcher. The club's 17/18 Player of the Year winner and talisman had clearly suffered a serious injury. The individual who had held the team together in his first season back in Gorgie was going to miss a sustained period of time. Torn hamstring the prognosis. Six months out the judgement.

Sign up to our Hearts newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The injury against Celtic last season proved to be a turning point in his second Hearts spell. Picture: SNS

Few could have envisaged, that at that moment, his second Hearts spell was taking a downwards turn. From this indestructible totem at the back to a ponderous, indecisive and fallible figure.

The news that Daniel Stendel had continued his ruthless Tynecastle cull with the club captain came as little surprise to many in the support. From the moment the German arrived in EH11 with his pressing, energetic, mobile, front foot football style, Berra's days were numbered.

Even before Stendel was required to try and save a sinking ship, previous manager Craig Levein was implored to drop the 34-year-old. However, with injuries to Craig Halkett and John Souttar, and the team in a difficult place, it was easy to see why such a decision wasn't taken.

Yet, as the games came and went, Berra's place in the team became harder to defend.

The captain is to train with the club's reserves. Picture: SNS

Defensive solace

Three gestures highlighted a player struggling. There was the hopeful arm in the air, pleading for the linesman to flag for offside. The double hand 'I don't want the ball' gesture. And the apologetic wave.

Berra was constantly searching for solace in the linesman, indicating a player not at ease, one whose pace has deserted him and adjusting to taking up the correct positions. These slower reactions and general awareness can be seen in the three Scottish Premiership own goals he has scored, the same tally as the club's top league scorer Ryotaro Meshino.

Then there was the decision making. The missed header which led to a St Mirren goal in a 5-2 win, the confusion when Martin Boyle netted the opener for Hibs at Tynecastle last month and a goal for Hamilton where the defender, facing his own goal, would simply have swept the ball away, safety first.

Berra was on the bench for the club's last fixture. Picture: SNS

These incidents only exacerbated his failings with the ball at his feet. Not only was there an unwillingness to take possession, his use of the ball was volatile, treated as if it was a live grenade wrapped within a hot potato. More than once this campaign a long, hopeful punt was met with boos from the Hearts support, only adding to an already restless atmosphere.

The unease was encapsulated in a match with Motherwell where, with time and space on the ball, he turned back and played it to Colin Doyle.

Such issues will only present further problems. Stendel constantly urges his full-backs higher up the pitch. It means the club's centre-backs have to be comfortable in one-v-one situations in wide areas. Berra a mere victim as the German attempts to recalibrate a team which has been mismanaged.

Sympathy due

Therein lies the sympathy which he is due. It is hard not to look back at the injury last season as the moment when things changed. It was judged to be a six-month absence. He was "thrown in" against Rangers after three months and three weeks. From that moment it has been like watching someone fight against the Travelator, desperately straining for the top but it remains just out of reach.

It is difficult to not feel for him, especially the timing of the decision, two days after his wedding. Yet, as many Hearts fans have said, with the club rooted to the bottom of the Ladbrokes Premiership there is little time for sentiment. The sooner the player knows the plans to move him on, the better it is for all parties. As one of the club's higher earners, freeing up some or even all of his wage could prove crucial in reshaping the squad. It is hard to make a case for his continued involvement when he doesn't fit within the tactical system and style.

Eyebrows should be raised regarding the request to train with the reserve team. Stendel likes to work with a smaller unit but such moves rarely go down well with team-mates, especially with a player who is popular and has been a fine servant for the club. As he said: "I've done a lot for this club. I know it's football, I know how it works, but I don't think anyone represents the club better than me. There are other ways to go about it."

It is an unfortunate ending, but for the sake of both the player and the club, Hearts can do without it becoming a prolonged affair.

The decision does, however, show a ruthless approach which has been required, plus a message to fans and all at the club that the Daniel Stendel era is well underway. And the message doesn't come stronger than the club captain being ushered towards the door.