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The Winter Breakup

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In the past week, the Scottish First Minister’s call for a second independence referendum was rejected, a Ukrainian passenger plane was shot down over Iran and Sandi Toksvig quit the Great British Bake Off. Tonight on Sportsound, the panel will be analysing what Daniel Stendel did wrong in each case.

Facetiousness aside, a peculiar bandwagon has been rolling through this winter break. Usually, at this time of year, supporters fill the match-shaped void by flicking through the papers or refreshing their Twitter feeds in the hope of finding the latest batch of freshly-baked rumours about their club’s transfer targets.

For Hearts fans, however, it seems not a day has gone by without an ex-employee, current employee or relevance-seeking pundit appearing in the media to have a pop at their new head coach. The charges against him? Fulfilling his contractual obligation to clean up a mess of someone else’s making.

After the first half of Boxing Day’s Edinburgh derby saw Hearts serve up the kind of meek surrender we’d all grown accustomed to for several months under Craig Levein, I tweeted my desire to see a bloodbath in this month’s transfer window. At the turn of the year, just as I had hoped, Stendel wasted little time in kick-starting a cull that resembled the closing montage of The Godfather. At the time of writing, Glenn Whelan, Aidan Keena and first-team coach Jon Daly have all been shown the door, while Jake Mulraney, Craig Wighton, Colin Doyle and skipper Christophe Berra have been advised to seek employment elsewhere.

Whelan, having maintained a self-imposed media silence during his time at Tynecastle (preferring instead to let his team-mates face the music for abject performances he played a part in) wasted little time in seeking self-preservation with any radio station that would have him. Presumably conducting interviews from inside his glass house, the Irish international – a man who unashamedly took full-time wages despite training on what was essentially a part-time basis – branded the club “amateurish” and accused Stendel of throwing him “under a bus”, despite being given ample opportunity to show what he could offer in three of the German’s first four matches.

Though few of a Hearts persuasion will mourn the loss of Whelan or many others on Stendel’s hit-list, the general reaction to the Berra news was understandably bittersweet, with supporters hailing the captain for his service to the club while also acknowledging that his number had been up for some time. Others, meanwhile, lamented the manner in which the situation was handled, labelling Stendel’s decision to have Berra train with the reserves as needlessly heavy-handed and disrespectful to a player of his stature within the Hearts community.

It is perfectly natural for supporters to feel that way. Berra, after all, is “one of our own”: we’ve watched him break through from the youth team, captain the side, secure a big money move down south and followed his career with club and country right up to the point he came “home” in 2017.

At the same time, it is also worth noting that supporters are the only stakeholders in a football club who place such great value on loyalty. Unsurprising, considering the entire practice of supporting a football club is founded on that quality. However, any notion that loyalty endures within the day-to-day, results-driven business of football, is nothing more than a rose-tinted figment of supporters’ imaginations. It is also one that we tend to apply selectively, such is the fickle nature of football fandom.

As we know all too well, blind loyalty towards other long-serving club figures is one of the reasons we ended up in this mess in the first place and, as one of those more prominent individuals will testify, when you are complicit in such poor results, previous service holds little sway with the support.

By contrast, Daniel Stendel is not a “Hearts man”. He holds no previous ties or emotional connection to the club and, as a result, is better-placed to take an objective, sentiment-free approach to the task he has been brought in to carry out – fixing the desperate situation his predecessor and players like Berra have had a significant part in creating.

From Stendel’s point of view, the success or failure of that task will remain on his CV for the duration of his coaching career and is what prospective employers will measure him by. From our perspective as Hearts fans, it will represent a significant part of his legacy. Whether or not he spares the feelings of an underperforming player he sees no future working relationship with is of secondary importance at best.

Of course, were we not actively flirting with relegation and instead found ourselves in a more comfortable position higher up the table, there would be a stronger case for a gradual wind-down of Berra’s Hearts career. In such circumstances, it’s also likely Levein would still be in charge and Berra would see out the remaining 18 months of his contract. Unfortunately, this is a concession Stendel can ill-afford to make.

“With Christophe I can say I tried my best to handle it and maybe some decisions look a little bit difficult. But I have a short time to do things. I know everything he has done for this club and we give him respect and we also want to give him the chance to find his best way. He was the skipper in this team, he is an experienced player, but the feeling is he won’t play so much in the second half of the season.”

After defeats in his first four games in charge, Stendel’s decision to drop Berra for the Aberdeen game suggested the German had reached the same conclusion as those of us watching from the stands: that the captain was a notable weak link. Furthermore, at the age of 34, Berra was never going to adapt to his new boss’ style, namely the desire for a high back line with defenders who are comfortable on the ball. It makes little sense, therefore, to involve him in practising a system he will never fit.

The fact that Stendel feels obliged to defend decisions which, in a situation as desperate as ours, should be entirely self-explanatory, while the likes of Jon Daly are given public platforms to absolve themselves of responsibility for a mess they helped create, says more about the parochial nature of Scottish football than it does about Stendel’s methods.

However, as Joel Sked pointed out in his Evening News article on Monday, the airtime given to Stendel’s critics over the past few weeks has only succeeded in creating a siege mentality among the Hearts support. If the atmosphere at the Aberdeen game is anything to go by, the galvanising effect on both Stendel and his players could prove invaluable in the latter half of the season.

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