Christophe Berra is looking forward to Craig Levein’s summer boot camp as Hearts look to restore peak fitness levels for next season.
The manager told the Evening News this week that he felt his squad wasn’t as equipped as he would like for the rigours of a long campaign and intends to run an intense pre-season. The insinuation – also made by coach Jon Daly during his time in caretaker charge last August – was that previous head coach Ian Cathro’s preference for ball work last summer had been to the detriment of the team’s basic fitness levels. Berra said he enjoyed pre-season last year, but the captain – speaking having experienced well over a decade’s worth of pre-seasons – believes there is no substitute for gruelling summer preparation.
“It’ll be a big pre-season for us,” Berra told the Evening News. “It’s been well documented that it’s going to be a tough one, which is what we need. Fitness is a massive part of the game and it’s something you can have to your advantage, especially in the Scottish game. If you’re as fit as you can be, you can go into the last ten, 15 minutes of games strong. Every manager has got different ways of how they deal with pre-season. I’ve done pre-seasons before under Craig and they’re very difficult, but that’s a good thing. If you do double and triple sessions in pre-season, the hard work is in the bank and you reap the rewards throughout the season.
“It was more ball work than fitness work last summer. I’ve been involved in teams that have done it that way in the past, and it was good last summer, but sometimes when you’re doing it that way it can be a hiding place for players. Sometimes in pre-season you just need to do the basics, and there’s a lot of managers at top clubs that still think that way. The top teams in England do a lot of fitness work in pre-season. You need to be fit enough to run with the ball and without it. If you’re as fit as you can be, then you’re more concentrated and fresh in the head when you get the ball instead of being tired and lethargic, which can lead to you becoming slack on the ball.
“Fitness is the main foundation of a pre-season and becoming a good team. You need that to compete first and foremost. Then after that you need to have the right tactics and fluency and cohesion as a team. Hopefully by the time the new season starts we’ll have the quality of player we need to help us with the way we play and to win us games. It’s going to be a massive season for us. Next year there can be no excuses. We need to start well and get a consistency to our game.”
Berra was speaking as Hearts prepare to host an Aberdeen side who sit a whopping 19 points ahead of them in second place. The Tynecastle side have drawn twice with the Dons this season but have been unable to generate any sustained momentum in a campaign set against a challenging backdrop. Despite the substantial points gap between the two teams, an unblemished record at Tynecastle this season gives Hearts hope that they can pick up a result tomorrow.
“We’ve got a good record at home and in the two previous games against Aberdeen we could have beaten them,” said Berra. “We should have won at Murrayfield and in the game at Pittodrie, there were chances at both ends, but I thought we just edged it. I remember Isma (Goncalves) had a great chance but the ball took a horrendous bobble and he put it over the bar. We know Aberdeen are the benchmark for everyone outside Celtic and they’ve had some good results recently so if we’re not 100 per cent on it, it will be a tough day.”
Berra knows Hearts have come in for criticism following their uninspiring draw at Dundee last Sunday, with much being made of their ongoing struggles to assert themselves away from home.
“In away games, maybe you have to play a different style of football and we possibly don’t have the players to do that just yet,” mused Berra. “It’s something we need to work on. When you play away, the team you’re playing against have a different mentality – they come at you more – so you have to counteract that. That’s something we’ll be working on throughout pre-season.
“As a team, we’re not ready yet to go away to any team in this league and think we’re going to win 3-0. A lot was made of us drawing at Dundee but they’ve just gone to Celtic Park and drawn 0-0. I heard someone at Dundee saying after the game that that was one of their best performances of the season so you’ve got to give a bit of credit to them. Obviously we can play better, but we can’t be arrogant enough to think we should be steamrollering any team in this league because, at the moment, we’ve not got the right to do that. We’ve got a lot of work to do before we’re at that level.”
Berra, meanwhile, confirmed that he expects to be able to soldier on through the last six games of the season despite being plagued by an ankle problem over the past couple of months. “It’s a lot better now,” he said. “I’ve just got to look after it and make sure I don’t over-exert myself in training, especially on the AstroTurf. Now and then I feel it on the pitch but you just need to block it out and get on with it. It didn’t bother me much against Dundee. It’s been about for six or seven weeks. It was niggling, then I had it bad on the Astro before the Motherwell game. For three games I had to get an injection to play each game but then we had the two weeks off for the international break so that did me the world of good. It’s not totally gone, but I think it will get better with a bit of rest and stability work at the end of the season. Unless something bad happens, I’ll be fine to play through to the end of the season.”