Hearts v Dundee United: Former boss Peter Houston says criticism of Andy Webster is unfair
Webster is set to miss the visit of Houston's men to Tynecastle this afternoon. His absence follows the depressing sight of him trudging off last week after only eight minutes of his team's Scottish Premier League opener at Ibrox - of all places.
Ibrox is where his reputation for being a malingerer, fair or otherwise, took hold after a cruciate knee ligament injury on his first day at training gave way to three and a half years in which he made only three senior appearances. By the end Walter Smith completely lost faith in him. In part, for the very reason that Houston retains it. Since April 2006, Webster has made 54 senior appearances. A total of 31 of these came in the 2009-10 season on loan to United from Rangers, when under Craig Levein then Houston he captained the Tannadice club to Scottish Cup success and third place in the SPL. It was the first season he had topped 30 appearances since his Tynecastle days - when he regularly did so under the coaching team of Levein and Houston, the defender having been signed by the current Scotland manager.
Having worked with Webster for the best part of five years, Houston is understanding of the complexities of the character. He accepts the defender has a fragility but doesn't see him as a fantasist and indeed considers the player a competitor who can actually be all too ferocious for his own good. "People ask me how come United got him for a season and he played," Houston said. "I can remember a game at the new Falkirk stadium. After 11 minutes he was holding his arm up and thought he had done his calf. If he wasn't 100 per cent right then he wouldn't play. I used to manage him properly - although that is not to say that other people don't manage him properly. I knew him very, very well and we never had these problems when we were all at Hearts.
"Andy Webster was an every-day trainer. I know on his first day at Rangers he got a hell of a knee injury which has set him back. Maybe confidence-wise it hasn't done him any good.At United on Monday and Tuesday we play small-sided games or whatever, then on Thursday and Friday work on our shape. Our seven-a-side games are fierce and that is the way I want it. Tempo, people falling out with each other, tackles flying in, and working really hard.
"Andy's family are down in Milngavie so I used to tell him to go into Murray Park and do gym sessions there and I'd see him on Thursday. He hates getting beat, Andy - wants to fall out with people and fight with people and couldn't get involved (in the seven-a-side games] and get injuries. Come Thursday and Friday, the team was picked, we would work on set plays and then, on a Saturday, he would play brilliant. But, if he was feeling anything at all, whether it was his groin or whatever, he wouldn't train or wouldn't risk it on a Saturday.
"He is just the kind of boy who will go out on the park and, if he is not 100 per cent right, he will put his hand up. Fans will see that as 'you big softy' but, as a manager, I would say at least he is honest.
"I don't think for one minute he would come off the park if he thought he could play on. He is not soft - he used to fight on the park when he did play in the seven-a-side games before we took him out of it. He would be whacking people and going into challenges where he was going to get himself hurt. He was an important player for Dundee United, the captain, so that is why I pulled him out of it a bit.
"It is difficult for me to say it is this or that. Everyone knows their own body. We all know when we are sore and when we think we can push it. Foreign players will not train either. My goalkeeper, Dusan Pernis, wouldn't kick the ball on Sunday. We spent a grand on a scan, and it showed absolutely nothing. Webby was exactly the same and sometimes his calf we would go and get scanned, and there is a minimal wee bit of damage, the kind that players sometimes would play on with.
"Danny Swanson had a scan on his back but, if arthritis is on a scale of one to ten, big Lee Wilkie used to have it eight or nine out of ten and he would play every week, Scott Severin in his ankle is always three or four. Swanny is at minus point five or something and he can't play. Because it is in here (points to head]. You have got to coax him and encourage him. It is not mollycoddling him because Andy isn't a softy and has had injury problems. I know for a fact that with the Rangers-Hearts game Andy hadn't trained that much that week and it was Jim Jefferies' decision to play him. He might have said to Jim: 'Look I don't know'. That is where it is up to the manager to make the decision and Jim has probably said; 'Look it is Ibrox, get f***ing on there'. He is one of their best players."
And, frustratingly for Levein and Houston, he is also the defender they want to build the Scotland defence around.He hasn't played competitively for Scotland in six years, however, with the last of his 23 caps coming in the friendly win over the Czech Republic in March 2010 that was Levein's first game in charge. There is little possibility of these stats changing in the coming months, starting with next week's friendly against Denmark.
"I don't think we have got a million great centre halves, we have got young Grant Hanley and Danny Wilson, then experienced guys like Gary Caldwell and Stephen McManus. Christophe Berra is at a decent age but is he going to play every week with Wolves? We don't know. You are looking for someone to step up to the plate and be playing regularly and I think centre half is a position that Craig, being a centre half, feels is one of the focal points of your football team. He is trying to find a partnership. Andy has never been the quickest but he doesn't get caught out by pacy strikers. I think that is what makes a good centre half - they don't have to be lightning quick if their body position is good. I would love to see Andy back in the team. But it would be a huge risk if he hasn't played. Craig has to be seen to be picking players who are playing for their clubs."
Brutal as it may sound, Levein should simply forget all about Andy Webster then. At least until he remembers how to play through some niggles.