Christophe Berra is currently enjoying a well-earned week off midway through a season in which he enjoys the distinction of having played every single competitive minute for both club and country.
Not only this, but he has done so to a remarkably high standard, to the point where he can be considered the standout centre-back in the Scottish Premiership thus far and arguably the most effective player in the entire league. No individual can be deemed to have had a more significant effect on their team’s fortunes this season than Berra, who has led Hearts to 11 clean sheets in the first two rounds of league fixtures. With his influence on younger colleagues allied to his domination of most opposition strikers, the 32-year-old Scotland centre-back has undoubtedly been the main reason the injury-hit, low-scoring, work-in-progress Tynecastle side have been able to collect points from 16 of their 22 league matches. As a result, Berra hasn’t been short of plaudits in recent months. Not that you’ll catch the ever-humble centre-back blowing his own trumpet.
“I don’t like talking about myself too much,” he said in an interview with the Evening News. “I’ve read a few articles and things where people have been praising me but I get wary of jinxing myself. I just go into every game trying do my job. As a centre-half, it’s about getting the basics right and making sure you’re consistent and getting a seven or eight out of ten most weeks. You’ll always make mistakes here and there, that’s part of being a defender. But I don’t get carried away when things are going well and I don’t get too down when they’re not going well. There’s always another game around the corner, and you’ve got to prove yourself in every game.”
Although he is not facing the same calibre of strikers he routinely came up against during eight-and-half years in England’s top two divisions with Wolverhampton Wanderers and Ipswich Town, Berra still feels like he is operating at the peak of his powers. In a curious quirk, however, the defender detects that he is now getting more recognition for standing out in Scotland than he did for consistently holding his own down south. “It’s hard to compare my form just now with what I was doing in England because the game is so different up here but I feel like I’m playing as well as I have done in the past,” he said. “When you’re in England, the Scottish media are not watching you regularly so they don’t know how well you’re doing, whereas in Scotland it feels like you’re more in the spotlight and more people are talking about you because there are so many papers up here and fewer teams than there are in England.
“After Rangers and Celtic, it tends to be Hearts, Hibs and Aberdeen who get most of the headlines so it feels like there’s more spotlight up here. If you’re doing well, it gets highlighted more. Football’s all about opinions – people might think I’m doing well, others might not. That’s football. All I can do is try and keep my standards high.”
Berra had the chance to stay at Ipswich on more lucrative terms, but instead jumped at the chance to return to Hearts as captain last summer in order to be closer to his five-year-old daughter, Savannah. “I’ve never regretted coming back up the road,” he said. “I had always wanted to come back and play for Hearts again at some point. I enjoyed and appreciated my time in England and had some great experiences down there. I could have easily stayed there if I wanted to, and, let’s be honest, financially it would have been a lot better, but it was just time to come home. I wanted to come back for my daughter and I wanted to finish my career with the club I started at. That’s the plan, and hopefully I can see it out.
“I took on a lot of responsibility becoming captain because a lot of people rely on you inside and outside the club. There’s a lot of weight on your shoulders to make sure you’re doing your job properly for the club and also producing good performances on a personal level. Even when you’re away from the training ground, you’re always organising things in the group chat and things like that. I was also brought here to pass on my experience to younger players like John Souttar and Harry Cochrane. I’m not always right but I’d like to think I pass on good advice. I think John gets earache from me because I’m always shouting at him in games and in training to keep him on his toes.”
Contentment off the field is helping Berra maintain his form on it. “It’s great to be back living in Edinburgh,” said the defender, who has set up home in Stockbridge. “I’ve been to many cities in the UK, and there’s not many better than Edinburgh – I’m very lucky to be born and bred here. I can’t see myself moving away from here again. It’s good to be back near my daughter and the rest of my family and friends.”
Despite being just a few weeks shy of his 33rd birthday, Berra has played every minute of Hearts’ 26 competitive games as well as all four of Scotland’s World Cup qualifiers this season. He insists he still feels as sharp as ever and doesn’t sense his body slowing down. “Playing every game hasn’t been a problem,” he said. “I’ve been used to playing 46 games a season in the Championship – Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday – in games that can be harder, more physical and involve more travelling on the bus. I don’t think I feel it any more now that I’m into my 30s. I still train as hard as I’ve always done. I’ve always been fit and up there when it comes to the running stats. It’s just a case of looking after yourself as well as you can. We have yoga as part of our recovery at Hearts and I’ve done a bit of pilates off my own back. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been fit for the majority of my career, and if I’ve ever had any injuries, I’ve recovered quickly. I’ve always wanted to play as long as I can so hopefully I can continue to avoid injuries, and keep my standards high enough to play in the first team.”
Berra hopes to maintain his place in the Scotland squad, but acknowledges that the fact he is no longer playing down south may count against him depending on the outlook of whoever is appointed as Gordon Strachan’s successor. “Not being in England might affect my place in the Scotland squad,” he said. “I’ve won 42 caps and hopefully there will be more to come but all I can do is play well for Hearts, keep my standards high and see if the new manager picks me. All I’m worried about just now is playing well for my club because that’s all I can control. If I do that, it gives me an opportunity to play for the national team.”
Berra’s reputation has been built on solidity rather than style. He knows he is not the most elegant centre-back in the land, but believes that a determination not to concede a goal trumps everything else when it comes to playing his position. “I’m never going to dribble past two or three players and then hit a defence-splitting pass,” he said. “Now and then, I might hit a good diagonal but my job is to dominate my opposing striker, stop them getting shots in, win my headers, get the ball and play it to people who can play. There’s no shame in that. There’s a lot of players like that – some of the best defenders in the world are like that.
“I’d rather be a defender who keeps clean sheets than one who plays loads of great diagonals but costs the team goals. Scottish football’s not so technical anyway. There are a lot of turnovers and it’s about winning your individual battles. The more people that dominate their opponents, the more chance you’ve got of winning a game.”
Although Hearts went into the winter break on the back of a record-setting run of six consecutive clean sheets, Berra wants more in the second half of the season. Shut-outs and plaudits will only satisfy him if they are accompanied by victories. “When you’re younger, you’re maybe quite happy if you play well personally or if you keep a clean sheet, but now I just want to win games,” said Berra. “Clean sheets are a bonus – first and foremost, I want three points.”