Christophe Berra has declined the chance of extra time off following his involvement in Scotland’s dramatic showdown with England on Saturday in order to ensure he is ready to lead his new Hearts colleagues in their first day of pre-season training this Friday.
The homecoming captain, who was immediately handed the armband by Ian Cathro after signing on a three-year deal at the start of this month, will effectively begin preparations for the new campaign less than a week after his 2016/17 season officially came to an end with a gruelling 2-2 draw at Hampden.
However, Berra, whose last game at club level for Ipswich Town was more than five weeks ago, feels he has already had ample time to recharge his batteries. In addition, he is simply champing at the bit to kick off his second spell at Hearts after returning to Edinburgh following eight-and-a-half-years down south.
“We’re back in on Friday and I’m looking forward to it,” Berra told the Evening News. “I’ve been off since the 7th of May and I’ve had a good break. I took a week off at the beginning but since then I’ve been to the gym regularly and done a few bits and pieces. I’ll take it easy this week after a tough game for Scotland at the weekend but I can’t wait to get in and get started with Hearts.
“I had the opportunity to have a few extra days off if I wanted. The gaffer said I could take more time off but I’ve had a break and I’m a fit lad anyway so I just want to go in when the rest of the lads return and be part of the team. I’m the captain and I want to lead by example and get in at the start to meet the guys and prepare for a long, tough season. I’ve been away on Scotland duty with Jack Hamilton but I’ve not had a chance to meet any of the others yet. I’m just looking forward to getting back and getting started.”
Berra is aware that, because he remains one of Scotland’s first-choice centre-backs and is returning to his homeland as a player who has been appearing regularly in the ultra-demanding English Championship, he has been billed as a figure of salvation returning to rescue Hearts from the mess they got themselves in towards the end of last season.
He is keen to play down the notion that he will be some kind of immovable object in the Scottish Premiership, but, having previously captained the club in his early 20s, the 32-year-old is comfortable with the demands of the Hearts support and will do all in his power to ensure the club return to an upward trajectory in the upcoming season.
“There is a lot of expectation, so if I have a bad game, people will be right on me,” he laughed. “I’m human, though – I will have ups and downs. I just want to go in there, do my best and try and lead by example. I’m not going to be coming back to swanny around – I know it’s going to be difficult.
“Tynecastle is a great place to play, especially now that the stadium’s getting redeveloped. It’s great when you’re winning and I know it’s a tough place to play when you’re not winning. But it’s like any club – you’ve got to take the good with the bad. Hopefully with the right players and the way the manager wants to do things, there’ll be a lot more highs than lows.”
Although Berra enjoyed testing himself in England’s second tier with Ipswich Town in seasons, the prospect of returning home to Edinburgh, where he could lay down roots for the future and be closer to his daughter Savannah and the rest of his family and friends, has been occupying his mind for some time. With his return to Hearts confirmed and having moved into his new home in Stockbridge, the centre-back has cut a contented figure in recent weeks. “I’m buzzing to be back,” he said. “Hearts is the team I want to play for. It’s been in the pipeline for a wee while that I might come back here. It’s always been at the back of mind that I’d like to end my career at Hearts. It’s the club that gave me my opportunity and I’m an Edinburgh lad, so I know what it means to the fans. Edinburgh’s my home – it’s a great city. I’ve got fond memories of playing at Tynecastle and in the derby games, so this felt like the only club for me at this stage of my career.
“The owner, the manager and Craig have been great with me. I’ve not got an agent – I did the deal myself and it wasn’t difficult at all. One of the main factors, obviously, is that my daughter’s here. I’ve been three years apart from her and she starts school this year. She’s a big part of my life and I want to be back around her.
“I’m loving being back in Edinburgh and spending more time with my friends and family. I live in Stockbridge now and it’s a great place with a lot of nice coffee shops. The last couple of years whenever I’ve come up in the summer, I’ve had places rented out so I just stayed with my mum and dad. But now I’ve moved into my own place, I’m looking forward to setting down roots for the future.”
Over the past month or so, Berra has had time to reflect on a fruitful period down south in which he amassed more than 330 appearances – almost all of them as a starter – for Wolves and Ipswich in England’s top two divisions.
“I had a great eight and a half years in England,” he said. “A lot of boys go down there and want to come back up the road, so I was delighted to last so long, especially considering I was down there the last three years on my own. I’d have taken eight and a half years if you offered me that when I first went down.
“I had four and a half years at Wolves and four at Ipswich and played basically every game while I was down there. I had three years in the Premier League with Wolves which was great. Obviously I’d rather have played in the Premier League for the whole time I was down there but the way it’s going, there’s so much money and boys from all over the world – South America and what have you – want to play there, so it’s harder for British players, especially Scottish boys, to play regularly in it. There were lots of highs and lows at both clubs under a great manager [Mick McCarthy]. Last season was a bit of a disappointment for us at Ipswich, but the Championship’s getting harder every season.”
Berra begins his second stint at Hearts in buoyant mood after delivering a solid performance for his country against England at the weekend. Although gutted by the loss of an agonising last-gasp equaliser to Harry Kane, the defender relished being in the thick of it in a match which will live long in the memory of all Scotland fans.
“That was my first game in five weeks, but we trained well last week and looked after ourselves and were able to keep going for 90 minutes,” said Berra, who landed Kane’s shirt after the match. “I got a bit of cramp after 70 minutes which can sometimes happen in these games when there’s so much adrenalin and pressure involved.
“You’re always worried at the back of your mind about whether you’re still going to have enough sharpness after so long without a game, but in that type of game the adrenalin gets you through it. The atmosphere right from the warm-up was a joke – it was probably the best atmosphere I’ve played in. It was a great game to be involved in and hopefully I can take that kind of performance back to Hearts. I’m hoping to lead the team to a lot of positive moments.”