While Hearts soar away at the top of the Scottish Championship, unbeaten after 19 games, one of their former captains is having a similarly heady time of it down south.
Christophe Berra, the Scotland centre-back, is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career at Ipswich Town, with the Tractor Boys second in the English Championship on the back of a stunning 11-game undefeated sequence in which they have accumulated 27 points from a possible 33.
Mick McCarthy’s low-budget side have lost only one game in all competitions since August and have the chance to leapfrog fellow surprise package Bournemouth at the top of the table – albeit possibly only for a few hours – when they host third-place Derby County in what promises to be a Saturday lunchtime cracker on Sky Sports.
Berra is too level-headed to get carried away, but the 29-year-old knows this is as good a chance as he’ll have to earn another crack at the English Premier League after playing almost 100 games in the top flight during three consecutive seasons there with Wolves between 2009 and 2012.
“You always think about the possibility of getting back into the Premier League, but there is still a long way to go,” Berra told the Evening News. “We’re in a great position after 24 games but there’s still another 22 to go, so there’s a lot of work still to be done. The Championship’s relentless. It’s physically and mentally demanding to keep going consistently in this league because you’re playing pretty much Saturday-midweek right through the season. It’s especially hard mentally as a defender because you need to concentrate so much.
“There’s only 11 points between top and eighth place, so any team that goes on a run could still win it. We’ll have a better idea in April if we’re going to get there.”
This is Ipswich’s 13th consecutive season outside the Premier League, but optimism is growing in the Suffolk town that their top-flight exile may be about to end under McCarthy, who has successfully led both of his previous clubs – Wolves and Sunderland – out of the second tier in the past decade. Asked what the secret is behind his side’s stunning form, Berra said: “We’ve got a bit of everything that you need in this league. We’ve got a good manager. We’ve got one of the smallest squads in the league and we’ve not spent any money apart from £10,000 on Tyrone Mings, but we’re a really close-knit group with no bad eggs and we’re all pulling together.
“We’re a dogged team with a good spirit. We’ve got good players, we score goals and we keep it tight at the back.”
Ipswich also boast a formidable home record, with nine wins and just one defeat in 12 games on their own patch, and supporters pining for a return of the glory days under the likes of Alf Ramsey, Bobby Robson and, most recently, George Burley, are flooding back to Portman Road to throw their weight behind the resurgence. “No team will fancy coming to Portman Road just now – it’s been a bit of a fortress for us this season,” said Berra. “But even away from home we’re picking up a lot of points, which is really hard in this league.
“You’d take a draw most of the time away from home in the Championship, but if you can pick up wins like we are, it makes a huge difference.
“We’ve built up some real momentum and there’s a real buzz among the supporters. We had 26,000 at our last home game against Charlton, which was just 4,000 short of capacity. Then we took over 5,000 three or four hours down the road to Southampton in the FA Cup on Sunday, so the fans are appreciating what we’re doing.
“This is the first time in a long time they’ve felt proud of their team and I’m sure we’ll have another big crowd against Derby.”
Berra will encounter some familiar faces on Saturday in the shape of Scotland colleagues Chris Martin, Johnny Russell, Craig Bryson and Craig Forsyth. The Edinburgh boy knows the clash with Steve McClaren’s Derby will be a major test of his side’s title credentials.
“It’s going to be a really tough game – they’re a good, attacking team and we’ve had some close encounters with them,” he said. “Chris Martin’s been a good Championship striker for the last couple of years, Bryson scores a lot of goals from midfield and Johnny Russell’s been excellent this season. They’ve got plenty threat throughout their team. Whoever wins on Saturday will go top for at least a few hours before Bournemouth play Norwich.”
Ipswich can do no wrong at present. Even when resting half their team for Sunday’s FA Cup tie away to a Southampton side sitting fourth in the Premier League, they still came away with a 1-1 draw. “It’s always good to test yourself against a top team like Southampton,” said Berra. “We made six changes and they had pretty much their strongest team out, so it shows our potential that we can go there and do so well against a team that’s in the Champions League places.”
While the goals of former Celtic striker Daryl Murphy – the league’s top scorer – have been crucial to Ipswich’s rise, Berra has excelled as part of a defence which has kept nine clean sheets in 24 league games. The only previous time he won promotion, the Scot came into McCarthy’s table-topping Wolves side half way through the campaign after joining from Hearts in January 2009 and helped get them over the line as champions.
The manager’s renowned steeliness shone through in his team at Molineux six years ago, and Berra believes it is doing so again now at Portman Road.
“Individually, I’ve been doing well,” said the ex-Jambo. “To go on a run like we’ve been on, you need the majority of your players to be playing at a high level week in, week out and we’ve had that. There are similarities between that Wolves team and the current Ipswich team.
“We’ve got the same manager, for starters. He puts the same demands and expectations on us as he did at Wolves and we’ve got a great attitude.
“We’ve got the winning formula and we just need to keep it going. With Wolves I came in halfway through the season, so it would probably mean a wee bit more if I could get promotion with Ipswich having played from the start of the season.”