Moira Gordon: Hearts’ break with Christophe Berra lacked dignity
Describing himself as “hurt and angry,” Christophe Berra has claimed that Hearts’ decision to axe him “came out of the blue”.
Returning to training after the New Year break, and his own wedding 48 hours earlier, the former Scotland international was told he did not feature in manager Daniel Stendel’s plans for the future.
If he was shocked by that, he was one of the few, given his form at the end of last season and the beginning of this term and the fact that his strengths, or more pertinently, his weaknesses, do not align him with the kind of football the new manager is looking to implement.
But the bruised emotions were understandable given everything he has put into his time at the club and the ruthless way it has been brought to an end.
The defender, who will turn 35 in a few weeks, has 18 months of his contract still to run and recently admitted that the likelihood would be more time on the bench. It was something the competitor in him was struggling to accept but he felt he still had a valuable role to play. The new manager did not agree and Berra was informed he should find himself a new club, either on a permanent basis or on loan. He would no longer feature for Hearts.
To ram that message home, he was told he will train with the reserves until his departure can be arranged.
Even in an industry largely lacking in sentiment and loyalty, on the part of employers and players, that cold-hearted full stop to his tenure as Tynecastle captain should earn him plenty of well-deserved sympathy.
Tough decisions have had to be made at Gorgie but that demotion seems a needlessly embarassing and disrespectful way to treat a player who, in his first season back at the club, was superb and earned plaudits as arguably the best centre-back in the league that term.
Brought to the club as an example of professionalism and leadership, a few games into that campaign he raged at an injury-time winner for Kerr Waddell at Dundee, emerging from the Dens Park dressing room having left new team-mates in no doubt about the standards expected at Hearts. It summed up Berra. He knows what the club means to those who turn up and watch, which is why in recent times when the team, himself included, have fallen well shy of what is demanded, he has continued to front up to the media and accepted the punters’ right to let off steam, even when disappointment and frustration was etched all over his face.
But, if he is being honest with himself, the decision to move him on cannot have been totally out of the blue. He has been found wanting too often this term, and even at the tail end of last season when he returned from injury perhaps too swiftly to help a team that had started that season so positively, arrest the decline that had coincided with injuries to himself and other key personnel.
But since that last-ditch lunge to deny Leigh Griffiths early last season, he has failed to regain his full powers and has been exposed for pace, while his distribution and decision-making have been suspect and confidence, like so many others, has deserted him.
There have been games when he has shown up, turned back the clock and grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck but the instances have been too fleeting.
In another era, he may have been allowed to stick around, as a mentor and cheerleader, picking up some minutes here and there but that appears a luxury Stendel cannot afford.
Shocked by just how precarious the situation is at the Gorgue club, the German desperately needs to free up finances if he wants to freshen his squad and surround himself with the kind of players he believes can take them back up the table. The 2019/20 version of Berra was never likely to be one of those players.
But, as a once-invaluable player and as a man, he still deserved to be treated with more dignity. A decent guy and laudable ambassador, the years leading up to now entitled him to that.