We naturally assume that a team losing a star player will automatically become weaker without them, but it’s not always the case. ‘What ifs...’ are a complex thing in football. The dynamics between 11 players on a park are so intricate that we cannot always tell what will happen. Sometimes the team does a lot better without a standout performer because they no longer use said player as a crutch to lean on. Forced into creating a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts plan, the unit functions together more effectively.
Having said that, there is absolutely nothing complex about the idea of Christophe Berra being removed from this Hearts team. They would be bottom six, possibly even relegation candidates. The best thing about the Hearts side - arguably the only good thing about it besides the emergence of some talented teenagers (and Steven Naismith) - has been the defence, and Berra is the glue that holds it together. He’s the leader and organiser of the backline, not to mention its biggest star.
If he didn’t wish to return to Scotland, if he didn’t have any prior affinity with the club, Berra would be nowhere near Gorgie right now. But he did, and he does. The Tynecastle support could not be any happier to have him back.
Sure, he’s not the most technically gifted player you’ll ever see, even for a defender. His distribution does not fit into the modern-day thinking that centre-backs have to be as proficient at launching attacks as they are at defending them. In that sense he’s an outlier, because you cannot deny his importance to the Hearts team. He’s like a magnate. The ball always seems to find him whenever the opposition bombard the penalty area with crosses.
Since returning, he hasn’t had a bad game. Consistency radiates off him. The further you get away from his position on the left side of the two centre-halves, the more unstable the performers become. The clean-sheet record - six matches in a row without a goal conceded, a new club record - drew national attention to something Hearts supporters knew from the beginning of the season. Even as their rudderless heroes were getting thumped 4-1 by Celtic on opening day, they were still able to turn to each other and say “Berra looks good”.
Right now he’s the popular pick for Player of the Year among fans and journalists. Having watched nearly every Ladbrokes Premiership game this season, this writer can confirm that, if the campaign were to stop now, he would be a deserving winner. Celtic’s Scott Brown should also be in serious contention, but Berra has an edge on him in this respect: he’s the better story.
Brown deserved a Player of the Year nomination last year and didn’t get one. This was for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, the narrative around him having such a great year took place at the beginning of the campaign, but because he’s a defensive midfielder there weren’t the goals and assists to sustain his charge. He didn’t have fans sharing clips of him on social media, and in today’s world where you’re on everyone’s lips one minute and forgotten the next, he fell behind his other team-mates at Celtic before we got to the finish line.
Secondly, we’re overfamiliar with Brown. He’s been around for over a decade, while the other guys were either new, sexy names, or players we thought we knew, only for them to take a significant leap in performance. Berra is different from the likes of Scott Sinclair or Moussa Dembele as he’s played in the country before, but feels like a fresh name because he’s been away for a while. Also, when he first moved to England as a young player, he wasn’t quite as dominant as he is now. If he’s doing this in the Premiership at 33, it stands to reason we’ve been underrating him this whole time.
Of course, it’s the players who actually vote for this award. But while they’ll definitely take their experiences on the park into account, they’ll only face the potential nominees four or five times a season, and will be influenced by the wider perception. Even among footballers, voter fatigue exists.
Others in contention for a nomination will be Hibs’ John McGinn, Rangers striker Alfredo Morelos and, even though he’s not enjoyed as good a season as last year, the reigning award winner Scott Sinclair. The latter’s Celtic team-mate James Forrest will gain a bit of interest. Ryan Christie will also earn some consideration for his displays at Aberdeen, while Kris Boyd will become an unlikely candidate if he can extend his form of the last two months through to the end of the campaign. These guys influence the game further forward and, if any of them produce consistency in the same manner as Berra and Brown, they’ll undoubtedly leap above everyone.
As it stands, though, it’s the Hearts captain who’s sitting on top of the pile.