Hearts boss Craig Levein faces tough task to replace Christophe Berra
While things have started far more positively on the park, the club and fans have been left reeling by news that their inspirational captain is expected to miss the next six months due to a serious hamstring tear picked up as the team triumphed over Celtic on Saturday.
In the immediate aftermath of the game, there was concern but there was also room for hope but that was dispelled by a scan which revealed that the injury was severe enough to require surgery.
It is hoped that operation will be performed today, but while the medical staff work to repair and rehabilitate last season’s club Player of the Year, it will be up to his colleagues to maintain the early momentum.
“The reassuring thing is that, this year, we have squad depth and Aaron Hughes showed his quality when called upon against Celtic,” said manager Craig Levein, above.“So we have options, although it’s obviously a very big blow.”
But while the 38-year-old Northern Irishman is likely to again partner John Souttar at the heart the defence when the team travel to East End Park this weekend to face Dunfermline in the Betfred League Cup, the club will look to bring in further reinforcements.
“This doesn’t help us in any way, shape or form,” said Levein who had recruited Austrian Peter Haring as cover at the back. But having proved himself a real asset in the midfield, the Hearts boss is loath to switch him. Instead he is hoping for the ongoing backing of the board as he tries to sign his 14th player of the summer.
“We will need money to bring in a replacement but Ann [Budge, the club owner] has been great with me so far. I’m hoping that will be the case again.”
Wages have been freed up by the departure of Don Cowie to Ross County, while Liam Smith has signed a 12-month deal with Ayr United.
But finding the right man to fill in for the captain who has been hailed as a leader on and off the park by his manager and his team-mates will not be easy.
Returning from eight years down south, with Wolves and Ipswich Town, the 33-year-old is in his second spell at the Gorgie club. He only missed one game last term and has been a colossus as Hearts have proved themselves all but invincible at Tynecastle, losing only once, at the end of last season, to Celtic. Throughout a mixed campaign they still kept 19 clean sheets, eight of them in successive games, as Berra marshalled the backline and dominated opposing strikers.
Apparently remaining philosophical about the injury, sustained as he corralled Celtic’s Leigh Griffiths, forcing him wide and denying him a clear shot at goal from a central area, the captain’s presence on the pitch may be missed but he is still likely to have a role to play in ensuring the men who do take to the field never forget what is expected of them or allow standards to drop.
A forthright voice in the dressing room, his moaning is cause for light-hearted digs from the men who have been on the receiving end, but the constant advice and unselfish coaching of younger players around him were invaluable last term as injuries led to the average age of the starting line-up plummeting.
The only positive for Hearts is that the team has a more experienced slant to it this term and Levein has recruited wisely in the summer, bringing in several self-motivated players who can drive others on and have been over the course before. In that regard, Berra is arguably less of a loss this term than he would have been last season.
A year on and Souttar is definitely a better player, having gained knowledge from performing week in, week out with the 41-times capped Scotland international, and he stepped up to the plate against Celtic in a manner that will have made Berra, who was watching from the tunnel, on crutches, proud.
In the past Souttar has been criticised for dips in concentration and an inability to really dominate physical battles. That was always in contrast to Berra who thrives on the blood and thunder and is rarely out-muscled or beaten in the air.
But having matured mentally and tactically, Souttar gave a more robust performance on Saturday and was a strong, no-nonsense figure as he and Hughes rose to the challenge and kept Celtic at bay.
But, Levein will, quite rightly, still look to strengthen.
As more of a ball player, Souttar has qualities going forward or picking out a pass to quickly turn defence into attack and his manager will be looking for the perfect foil. And given his age and last season’s injury troubles he will not want to be left relying on 38-year-old Hughes or young Daniel Baur for the next six months. Not when the team have started the season with so much promise and with a European spot the end-of-season target. The bar has been set high. Much of that is down to Berra. But now it is up to the troops to show how they can battle without him.