Loyal to a fault

by Feb 27, 2019

On Saturday night I slept for over 10 hours, having made the uncharacteristically grown-up decision to take an early night. There is a multitude of reasons I may have flagged early: a busier-than-usual week at work, a few later midweek nights, the two bottles of wine with my wife on Friday…or the sheer toil of watching Heart of Midlothian on Saturday afternoon.

I’m tired. Tired of the same slow, predictable, pedestrian football. Tired of the same mistakes. Tired of dropping points at home to teams at the bottom of the league. Tired of passing up opportunities to close the gap on those above us on what seems to have become a weekly basis. Tired of the empty post-match platitudes from players and management about needing to be better. Tired of taking one step forward and two steps back.

Last week, as our hopes of coming away from Fir Park with a draw bobbled out of Colin Doyle’s hands, my immediate reaction could only be described as submissive acceptance. On reflection, I told myself that it was a freak error, that we had been good for a point over the course of the game and that next week would be better. Why wouldn’t it be? After all, it’s only St Mirren at home.

Of course, it’s easy to convince oneself of these things when looking at a particular game in isolation, but when that game is followed by the kind of showing the team put in on Saturday, you’re reminded that it’s not actually an isolated incident at all and that it’s been happening throughout the season. Before the New Year, those performances were usually mitigated by our deepening injury crisis and the sanguine notion that, with everyone healthy, we’d see a swift upturn in form.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t panned out as such. Instead, the Hearts players have resembled the cast of a once-popular TV show that’s been resurrected after a long hiatus. The big-name characters have all returned — Christophe Berra, Steven Naismith, John Souttar, Uche Ikpeazu — but the writers have got lazy, the script is unimaginative, the on-screen chemistry isn’t what it once was and some of the actors are fluffing their lines more than they used to.

In addition, the lead man is getting older and his star appears to be fading. It pains me to criticise our captain, the man who essentially held Hearts together last season, but that isn’t a patch on how painful it has been watching Berra struggle through the past month or so.

Whether it’s the first proper injury of his career taking a heavier-than-expected toll or simply father time catching up on him, it’s evident that Berra isn’t the player he was when he returned to the club last season.

In a campaign that saw us fielding teenagers on a weekly basis, the 34-year old’s presence, experience and leadership were so invaluable that the potentially catastrophic implications of a serious injury didn’t bear thinking about. In August, those fears were realised when Berra was initially ruled out for six months with a hamstring tear sustained in the second league game of the season.

In theory, with last season’s specs on, this seemed like an absolute hammer blow. In practice, from a defensive point of view at least, the team coped with his absence remarkably well, marginally better than they have since his return in fact. In the 12 league games Berra missed, Hearts conceded 14 goals (an average of 1.17 a game), which included eight goals across two trips to Parkhead and Ibrox. Since his comeback, Hearts have conceded 17 in 13 league games (1.31 per game), none of which have been against Celtic.

Of course, bare stats don’t paint the full picture. They don’t reveal, for example, how much Berra has struggled on the left of a back three, how wasteful his distribution has been and how little awareness his manager seems to have of those things, despite exercising a cut-throat approach towards other under-performing players (most recently Colin Doyle).

I’m very much a fan of Craig Levein and what he’s done for the club over the years. Traditional one-club figures are increasingly rare in football nowadays and (although he’s managed other clubs) Levein is undeniably Hearts to his core. It’s hard, therefore, not to root for someone like that and even harder to accept when it simply isn’t working for them.

However, in recent weeks I’ve found myself reflecting on that last point more often, asking myself not whether another manager would get more from this group of players (as many on social media have of late) but if another manager (the Lockes, Neilsons or Cathros of the world) would be allowed to preside over the same mediocrity without their job security being called into question?

I’m not suggesting that Levein should be given his jotters because of a few recently-dropped points — after all, there is still a lot to play for this season with the cup quarter-final coming up and European qualification still very much within our grasp — but our erratic form doesn’t offer much cause for optimism that either endeavour will bear fruit. Even less so when the game plan doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon.

Last season, the notion of dropping Berra would have been nothing short of insane. However, insanity was defined by Einstein as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results: persisting with a system that exposes Berra’s latent weaknesses is exactly that.

Whether it means foregoing loyalty towards certain players for the sake of the wider system or finding a new system that plays more to those players’ strengths, if Hearts’ results are to improve in the latter stages of the season, Craig Levein must be open to change.