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Ruined Hoops

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On Celtic meltdowns and coping without Berra and Lafferty

Last Friday, I spoke about how the timing of our first game against Celtic could not have been better and that certainly proved to be the case. Unfortunately, the timing of the stomach bug I picked up on Friday night could not have been worse, thus ensuring the only place from which I could savour our victory was my bed.

Having been up to the toilet over 20 times during the night, I felt my absence from Tynecastle was probably the safest option for all concerned, with any sudden movement or excitement almost certain to result in me projectile vomiting or, worse, soiling myself. It was surprising, therefore, that as Kyle Lafferty’s volley hit the back of the net on Saturday, 11 men in green and white hoops were the ones who shat the bed and not me.

There’s a unique feeling of pleasure that comes with beating Celtic which simply isn’t replicated in victories over other teams. A derby victory over Hibs is pleasurable by virtue of the fact that they’re our oldest and most direct rivals, but it’s also a victory that people demand every time we meet: defeat is simply never viewed as an option. Victories over Aberdeen are also satisfying, but despite their strength in recent years, Aberdeen are still a team most Hearts fans expect to beat. Even Rangers aren’t considered quite as big a scalp nowadays as they would have been in their previous life.

I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking this way, but the enjoyment I derive from beating Celtic isn’t even due to the fact that they’re the best team in the league or because such results are a rare occurrence for us. No — after the result itself, the most pleasing element is the sheer meltdown it provokes among those of a green and white persuasion. In fact, it’s because they’re the best team in the league and because we rarely beat them that their collective breakdown generates so much entertainment.

Celtic supporters fail to understand this, largely because so many of them are spoilt by success, which often shows in their standard rebuttal, usually some smug reference to double trebles which they hope is enough to shame fans of less successful clubs into silence. Except, that’s not really an approach that works on the rest of us: we expect them to win every competition as much as they do.

The flipside is that we don’t expect the same kind of success ourselves. We naturally hope and strive for it (and revel in it when it comes) but due to its scarcity, we take greater pleasure in the smaller victories that present themselves over the course of a season. A glory-hunting fan cannot grasp this notion, nor understand why his own blubbering, snottery response to one anomalous defeat fills others with such unbridled schadenfreude.

Unfortunately, our own joy on this occasion came at a price, after Christophe Berra was stretchered from the field at the end of the first half and later ruled out for half a year with a torn hamstring. The captain’s importance to the team has been obvious for some time and many shuddered to think how last season could have unfolded if we had not been so fortunate to have him marshalling the defence for all bar one of our competitive matches.

It’s a reality we’re faced with now and certainly deals an early blow to what has been an incredibly positive start. However, there was comfort to be drawn from the manner in which John Souttar stepped up after Berra’s withdrawal, the 21-year old producing arguably his strongest and most mature performance for Hearts to date to keep Celtic at bay.

After an inconsistent start to his Hearts career, punctuated by multiple defensive partners, a serious injury of his own and a couple of notable lapses in concentration against Celtic in previous encounters, Souttar’s performance under trying circumstances on Saturday was testament to just how much his development has accelerated since Berra returned to Tynecastle last season.

Whereas a younger, less experienced Souttar would have wilted under such pressure as part of previous Hearts defences, alongside Berra he has become more battle-hardened and mentally resilient, qualities that will no doubt be considered by Craig Levein when choosing his stand-in captain:

“I haven’t decided. Possibly Souttar but there are a few other captains in that team. We’ve got Naisy and Steven MacLean, but then Souttar’s performance in the second half against Celtic was captain-like so I have a choice to make. The good thing is that the ones we have got will do their captain’s part whether they are wearing the armband or not. I feel we have a few players in the team who are leaders and who don’t need an armband to prove that, so I’m not worried about that side of things.”

Unlike last season, when Berra was the key Jenga piece whose removal would undoubtedly have had destructive consequences, we now look far better-equipped to cope with his absence, maybe not quite from a depth perspective (although replacements will eventually be found) but certainly as far as leadership figures are concerned.

The other bittersweet element to Saturday’s result was that Kyle Lafferty’s goal looks almost certain to have been a parting gift and his last notable action in a maroon jersey, with the Northern Irishman’s move back to Rangers looking more likely by the day.

Given the bond that’s formed between Lafferty and the supporters over the past year, it’ll be disappointing to see him leave, especially for them. He’s the kind of character you love to have in your team and, as he’s demonstrated in games against Celtic and Hibs, is a player who relishes the big occasion.

However, if Rangers finally match the price Hearts have quoted all along, it will represent a fair return on a player we picked up for nothing and whose contract expires next summer, while hopefully providing some funds either to speed up David Vanecek’s arrival or source suitable cover in central defence.

Furthermore, in a similar vein to Berra, we’ve already shown this season that we don’t rely nearly as heavily on Lafferty as we did last year, with our goal threat now more evenly spread across the team thanks to the likes of Steven Naismith, Uche Ikpeazu, Steven MacLean and even Peter Haring.

The Hearts team that lines up to face Dunfermline in the last 16 of the Betfred Cup tomorrow could well be the first without any sighting of Berra and Lafferty since they both signed last summer. Should the remaining Hearts players perform to the standards we’ve seen so far and book themselves a quarter-final place, it’ll certainly help put those players who are out of sight, out of mind.

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