It’s hard enough being pitched into a high-pressure game having not played for the previous five weeks. But Clevid Dikamona knew the scrutiny was guaranteed to be fiercer still due to the identity – and status – of the player he was replacing.
It’s not possible to downplay dropping the club skipper to the bench. Daniel Stendel was aware that naming Christophe Berra among the substitutes for Sunday’s game against Aberdeen would create a stir. But then it’s long past the point where the recently appointed can afford to protect a player’s reputation. He has his own one to think about. Needs must.
Stendel explained his thinking following the 1-1 draw. “One side of it is I wanted to give Clevid a chance to play – I have only this game before we decide what we do in January,” he said. “The other point is that we need more bravery. I can see it sometime in training and when we want to defend higher and press higher.
“Christophe has not much time to train because he plays most of the time but as I said, it is a different game for some players to what has gone before. Some players find it easier to adapt in a short time and others need a little more time. I am sure we can improve all the players who stay at Hearts in January.”
It was an interesting insight. What it means for Berra in the long term, who can say right now? But Dikamona could not afford to be distracted by concern for his skipper’s welfare. He had to take his chance and he did. Stendel had challenged him to prove he can fit in with his style of play.
“He told me to show him I can play the football that he wants,” revealed Dikamona. “That’s why I tried to be available for the keeper, to play from the back, to defend as high as possible, like he likes. But I also tried to be myself and just give everything.”
The defender performed well for the most part, only blotting his copybook slightly when making an injudicious decision to attempt a mazy run in the middle of the park in the dying moments as Aberdeen fought to take advantage of the hosts being a man down following Sean Clare’s red card. But Hearts were not hurt by this rashness and saw out the match to claim a deserved point.
Dikamona could not avoid the significance of being picked ahead of Berra. “That shows everyone that the manager is not interested in reputations, that just because Christophe is the captain that he has to be on the pitch,” he said.
“It’s the same for everyone, if you are not good enough one week, maybe because you feel tired or something, then you are not sure to be in the team. You need to give 100 per cent of yourself every day, every week. That’s good.”
Berra was supportive, even offering Dikamona some advice before the match. Admirably, while he did not get on himself, Berra was quick to give those such as fellow substitute Loic Damour his backing as they waited to be sent on.
“He’s still the skipper of this team, that doesn’t change because he is on the bench,” said Dikamona. “He’s still the skip and he does the job very well. He’s still the guy who represents this club more than every one of us.
“So maybe he understands why the manager changed things and gave me the opportunity to play. He just told us all to go out and try and win this game so we can start to climb the table.”
Of course, while Hearts produced a far more improved performance, and earned a point despite playing for over 20 minutes with just ten men, they found themselves cast further adrift at the bottom after wins for Hamilton and St Mirren. Whatever momentum was gained on Sunday will now be disrupted by the winter break.
Hearts have a Scottish Cup tie against Airdrie to come before they resume league duty with a tricky midweek clash at Ross County. Dikomona is confident the good vibes felt on Sunday will survive this interlude. The break also allows Stendel to continue forcing his will upon the players.
“I think we started to see the signs two or three games ago,” said Dikamona. “It’s hard to say we did well before that because we lost the games, but I think (v Aberdeen) we did the things he wants us to do. So maybe this game was special.
“When you play at Tynecastle and give everything the fans will always be behind you, even when we are bottom of the league, like we are now,” he added. “The Aberdeen game didn’t feel like we were bottom of the league. The stadium was full, the atmosphere was amazing. And it is up to us to bring the fans with us every week, to have this atmosphere and put the opponent under pressure.”