After being released six months early from his contract with Rangers, Andy Webster has controversially returned to Hearts for a second spell. Even though some in the Hearts support will stay stubborn in their vehement dislike for the Scotland international, this could be the perfect opportunity for him to re-establish himself.
Andy Webster engineered his move away from Tynecastle in 2006 by invoking what at the time was a little known clause that allowed him to buy out the remainder of his contract. The clause allows players to move after a ‘protected period’ of their contract has elapsed, the length of which depends upon the player’s age.
The clause also forbids players from switching to clubs within the same country. Webster initially moved to Wigan Athletic but was loaned to Rangers within four months, a move unsuccessfully contested by Hearts, and remained there until the deal was made permanent in the summer of 2008.
This is where most of the animosity from the Hearts support directed towards Webster every time he has since lined up against Hearts has developed from. Not only did he wrangle his way out of his contract prematurely, he has also been accused of conspiring with Wigan and Rangers in order to eventually end up at Ibrox.
The subsequent court verdict, later to be known as the ‘Webster ruling’, eventually required Webster to pay £150,000, short of the original ruling of £625,000 FIFA, shorter still of the millions Hearts owner Vladimir Romanov had been holding out for.
When he eventually signed permanently for Rangers, he did so for an undisclosed fee.
Webster’s career has pretty much stalled at Rangers due to a succession of injuries. He enjoyed a successful season on loan at Dundee United during the 2009/10 campaign, captaining the side to a Scottish Cup triumph, finishing third and adding to his previous Scotland caps.
However, since returning to Rangers, he has again missed the majority of the season to injury and competition for places, echoing another controversial departure from Tynecastle to Ibrox, which also culminated in few opportunities and career threatening injuries, in the form of Paul Ritchie.
A chance to redeem himself as a top SPL centre-half has again come along, although this time he will need to battle against the unwelcome reception he is sure to receive from at least some sections of the Hearts support when he once again pulls on the maroon and white jersey. It is certain that the name ‘Andy Webster’ will be greeted with jeers and cries of “Judas” from the Hearts support come the next time his name is announced over the tannoy system at Tynecastle, or any other SPL ground for that matter.
Moreover, one misplaced pass or poor defensive display will inevitably be seized upon by those less-forgiving among the Hearts support.
Negativity from the sidelines directed towards Webster will only serve to disrupt the progress made by Hearts under Jim Jefferies this season. Even though the Hearts fans are not expected to blindly support anyone who turns out in maroon and white – Larry Kingston and Christian Nade are recent examples of high-wage earners who rightfully were subject to rather vocal criticism due to their lack of effort and commitment to the club – Webster surely deserves another chance to impress at the club that developed him into the player he is, or at least is capable of being, today.
Webster was brought to Tynecastle by Craig Levein for a modest fee in 2001 from Second Division Arbroath and after forging a solid central-defensive partnership with Steven Pressley became a Scotland international. What angers those dissenting voices in the Hearts support so much is that he then chose to turn his back the side that had the previous season split the Old Firm, finishing above Rangers, to ultimately sign for them.
Webster cannot be criticised for having ambitions of playing at a higher level but it is the manner in which it happened and the lousy compensation that Hearts eventually acquired that sticks in the throat of the Hearts support.
Many would claim that he received his just deserts through his consequent injury nightmare, however, at least from a Scotland perspective, it is sad to see such a promising career hindered in this way.
Hearts fans should be getting behind anyone who takes to the field in aid of their club, at least initially and if they make it clear that they are fully committed to the cause, including Webster. He may not have departed on the best of terms but we should remember that the reason he initially cited in his desire to leave Hearts was a consequence of being frozen out of the first team, including a pre-season trip to the Republic of Ireland. Webster refused to sign the new contract he had been offered and claimed that his forced absence from the first team was in breach of his existing contract.
Freezing out contract rebels is a tactic that Romanov has controversially exercised since, most recently with Marius Zaliukas when manager Jim Jefferies was screaming out for a commanding centre half. Zaliukas’s return coincided with Hearts’ best run of form in many a year and Webster’s return may could potentially be as beneficial. Not only do Hearts currently require central defensive cover for Zaliukas and Ismael Bouzid but the latter’s contract expires in the summer. Webster, if fit, will prove to be more than an adequate replacement for Bouzid should he decide to move on.
The moral quandary surrounding players’ contracts and freedom of movement is yet to be fully resolved and shows no immediate signs of abating. For most other professions an unhappy employee can terminate their contract with sufficient notice. Webster not only served his notice, acting within the rules set by FIFA, he was able to escape from an employer that he believes was mistreating him and, ironically, hindering his development. Something most other employees would seek should they be treated in a similar manner.
Whether or not you agree with the circumstances under which Webster left Tynecastle in 2006, he deserves a chance to redeem himself and could potentially turn into a quality acquisition by Jefferies for seasons to come.