Christophe Berra came through his own tough baptism at Hearts with flying colours, but the Ipswich Town and Scotland centre-back has the utmost sympathy for the current young players at Tynecastle battling the ultimate adversity as they bid to follow in his footsteps.
Having become captain of an experienced Hearts team, established himself in the Scotland squad and played for three years in England’s Premier League, the 28-year-old centre-back is the ultimate poster boy for all those coming through the ranks at Riccarton with dreams of making it in the game.
Now enjoying a new lease of life at high-flying Ipswich after a disappointing end to a largely fulfilling four-and-a-half-year spell with Wolves, it is with a heavy heart that Berra watches the current batch of Hearts youngsters having to cut their teeth in the most demanding circumstances imaginable.
For someone who made his debut just over a decade ago in a Hearts team that contained Paul Hartley, Steven Pressley and Andy Webster and then went on to share a dressing- room with players like Edgaras Jankauskas, Rudi Skacel, Takis Fyssas and Bruno Aguiar, he feels for the Hearts youngsters who have been sent out to fight a 15-poinr deficit with the aid of only four experienced professionals.
“I had internationalists like Steven and Webby beside me when I was coming through but these youngsters don’t have really have many players like that beside them,” said Berra, who was made Hearts captain aged just 22 before earning a £2.3million move to Wolves five years ago. “When I made my debut at 18, I was one of the only young players in the team and I was surrounded by big characters and internationalists. Now at Hearts there’s about seven or eight players who have not played many games and they’ve all been flung in together.
“If a guy in the current team makes a mistake they’ll probably have a really hard time but, when I was young, there were only one or two young boys in the team so the experienced boys would pull you through if you made a mistake. Having someone like Steven Pressley beside you when you’re coming into the team is totally different to having another young boy next to you. At 20 or 21, most boys haven’t come out their shell, so it’s hard for them to be a big voice on the pitch.
“People say it was hard for guys like me, Lee Wallace and Eggert Jonsson coming through as young boys at Hearts when there was a lot of off-field upheaval and managers changing all the time, but we had a really good squad back in the day and, when we went across the white line, all the off-field stuff was forgotten about and we managed to put performances in.
“These boys will be giving 100 per cent but they’ll be missing that experience of knowing when to kill games and handle big-pressure moments. Some players would have been taken out the team by now but they’re having to learn the hard way and I’m sure in the long term this experience will make them stronger and better players.”
Having played for Hearts during a relatively purple patch for the club, Berra accepts that many fans will be struggling to accept their team’s demise. However, he insists that the young players are entitled to maximum tolerance from the stands given that they are being asked to hold their own in a level of football which is totally different to anything they will have encountered in the youth ranks.
“It’s difficult to see Hearts in this situation and I know the fans will get frustrated but, although there are a lot of good players there, there are a lot who in past years wouldn’t get in most Hearts teams,” he explained. “They’re giving their all in every game but it’s a very steep learning curve for the players at the moment. The jump from youth team to first team really is massive.
“The tempo, the speed and the strength of the game is totally different. You can’t switch off for a second in the first team. In Under-19 games, you feel confident because you know you’re one of the better players on the pitch, but then you go into the first team and you can be seen as one of the weakest and the opposition will target you because you’re young. It’s a totally different ball game and that’s why you see so many young players going out on loan to lower-league clubs to get experience of competitive football and playing for points.”
For all their current problems, Berra is confident that a fruitful future awaits Hearts if the club can be taken out of administration and into the hands of the Foundation of Hearts.
“It’s not looking good for Hearts at the moment but they’ll come back stronger,” he said. “I think going into administration will be a good thing in the long term in terms of giving them a chance to clean the books, start afresh and build back up to the club we all know it can be. Hopefully, the new owners will come in and back the club not just for six or seven years, but for ten or 20 years and get Hearts back on a level financial footing where they can bring youngsters through into a team that’s competitive.”
While his old club is on its knees at present, Berra’s own career is on an upward trajectory again at Ipswich after his career stalled briefly last year.
After signalling his intent last year to leave a Wolves side in freefall, the Scotland centre-back was unceremoniously banished from the first team for the last three months of last season. It came at the worst time possible for Berra, who had worked hard to establish himself as a first pick for Scotland under Craig Levein, the man who, incidentally, gave him his Hearts debut. After starting Gordon Strachan’s first game in charge of the national team against Estonia in February, he subsequently lost his place in the Scotland squad as a result of being frozen out by Molineux manager Dean Saunders.
Having joined Ipswich at at the start of this season after a brief summer dalliance with Rangers, Berra was relieved to earn a recall to the international fold for the latest batch of international friendlies against USA and Norway in November. His next target is to win back his starting place in the heart of the Scotland defence after seeing Grant Hanley and Russell Martin take the places of he and the injured Gary Caldwell.
“I was disappointed not to play at the end of last season because I’m not the sort of guy to drop my standards just because I’m thinking about leaving,” he said. “I pride myself on my performances. I knew it would have an effect on my Scotland place, so I was a bit p****d off about that. Gordon Strachan had said that it would be difficult to pick players who weren’t playing regularly for the club and I totally accepted that because it would have been unfair on the guys who are playing well for their clubs.
“It was frustrating because I had played about 14 or 15 games in a row for Scotland and I felt comfortable. Sometimes you go through periods like that in your career but thankfully I look to have come through it. It was a boost to get back on for the last few minutes against Norway but the boys who have come in have done well so I’ll have to wait for my chance to work my way back into the starting eleven.”
Returning to the Premier League with Ipswich would certainly aid Berra’s cause in that regard. The fact his side currently sit sixth in the Championship and are managed by Mick McCarthy, the man who first led him to the top flight with Wolves in 2009, gives him reason for optimism.
“The Premier League is one of the best leagues in the world and, with all the foreign players wanting to play in it, it’s more difficult all the time for British players to play there week in, week out,” he explained. “It’s mainly just the lower teams in the Premier League now who have a lot of British players so I’m proud of the fact I had three good years in the Premier League.
“I felt I acquitted myself well and competed well against some of the top strikers in the league and I want to get back there with Ipswich.
“The play-offs are a realistic target for us this season. We’ve got one of the smallest squads in the league but, at the moment, we’re very competitive and sitting in the play-off places. We’ve only had three defeats in 21 games but, if we could turn a few of our draws into wins, it would make a big difference.
“We’ve got a good manager in place who knows this league inside-out and I don’t think he would have taken the job unless he knew the club had ambitions of finishing in the top six.
“We know if we’re to get there, we’re going to have to hang in there for another 22 games. It’s such an intense league – it’s crazy.”