Christophe Berra learned many years ago to expect verbal abuse as a Hearts player at Easter Road. Nonetheless, the club captain is still inspired by such flak. A roasting from Hibs supporters during the warm-up last Saturday drove him on and led to some extensive celebrations following Hearts’ 1-0 victory in Leith.
Visiting players revelled in the acclaim from the travelling support after their first win away to Hibs since April 2014. Berra’s titanic performance during the late onslaught was critical as he headed ball after ball clear of danger. At the back of his mind were the verbals thrown his way before a ball had even been kicked.
“With the emotions at the end, I don’t think I’ve been like that for a while,” smiled the 33-year-old. “It just shows you what the club means to me. We had balls coming into the box and we were defending, getting heads on it, winning knockdowns. It was a wee bit backs-to-the-wall but sometimes those are the ones you really enjoy.
“When that final whistle goes, it’s such a release. In the warm-up I was getting a bit of stick. I’ll take it and I’ll give it back. They’ve got to take it as well. You enjoy it, it’s football, so you’ve got to just take it on the chin and bounce back. I just laugh and try to ignore it.
“That’s what spurs you on as a player, especially when it’s Hibs against Hearts. These are the games you want to play in, coming as the away team and getting a wee bit of stick. Hopefully, when the final whistle goes, you get the three points which we were lucky enough to do.
“These wins against your bitter rivals away from home don’t come around very often, so when they do you need to cherish them. You could see how much it meant to the fans and I can assure them it meant just as much to the players.”
Olly Lee cemented a place in Capital derby folklore with a stunning goal to decide the game in the first half. The Hearts midfielder’s left-footed effort came during a dominant period for the men from Tynecastle Park, and ultimately secured a memorable result at the home of their greatest rivals.
“I thought we played well in the first half in particular. We created opportunities and scored a good goal,” said Berra. “Maybe after three games in a week our quality in the final third wasn’t quite there. We knew what was coming in the second half. They put [Darren] McGregor up front and started throwing balls in to the box. We defended very well the majority of the time and you need to ride your luck a wee bit on other occasions.
“Olly’s great shot was the break we needed. We’ve not had the best away record against Hibs, we hadn’t won in four years, so while we would have loved it to be more comfortable, we were happy to grind it out.”
Three points against Hibs followed a home win over Hamilton on Boxing Day, putting Hearts back in contention in the upper echelons of the Ladbrokes Premiership. They endured a run of just one win in ten prior to the Hamilton match after relentless injuries to key players during the first half of the campaign.
Their recovery is ongoing and they entered the winter break just six points off the league summit with the likes of Berra and Steven Naismith fit again. Uche Ikpeazu and John Souttar should return in a few weeks.
“We’ve had to take the criticism on the chin recently. We got it after [losing 2-0 at] Aberdeen, when we didn’t actually play that badly,” explained Berra. “But in football you need to bounce back. We were comfortable against Hamilton and it doesn’t matter how you win the derby – you take any win against Hibs.
“Every club gets injuries but we had our fair share, especially to the forward players. Uche brings something different to the game, Naisy of course, Macca, they all bring different qualities.”
More quality is due to arrive in the shape of the Czech forward David Vanecek, a pre-contract signing from FK Teplice. Berra senses Hearts are growing in strength preparing for the second half of the season.
“We’ll have week off to recharge. We have another boy coming in who will hopefully hit the ground running and we’ll have key players back fit again. We might strengthen as well. If you are going to be competing at the top end of the table, you need everyone fit and competing for places in the squad. That’s something I’m sure the gaffer is looking at.”
Beating Hibs sent a message to the rest of the Premiership that Hearts are in the mood to fight for those European places at the very least.
“It’s so tightly congested in the top six but if you want to be up there you need to be winning big games like the ones against Hibs,” noted Berra.
“They’ve had some good results of late against the Old Firm and we were probably underdogs, but we proved a few doubters wrong. That’s half the season gone so we’ll have a week off then regroup. Hopefully we can pick up where we left off.”
After a winter training camp in southern Spain, Hearts hope to return to Scotland refreshed and ready for a Scottish Cup fourth round tie at home to Livingston on Sunday, January 20. Three days later, the league restarts with a visit from bottom-of-the-table Dundee.
“There are always ups and downs. Celtic have run away with things a bit in recent seasons but they have dropped points this season as well,” said Berra.
“We’ve been a bit of a yo-yo club between the top six but we want to finish top four and qualify for Europe. We believe we can achieve it.
“There’s a long way to go and there are so many teams who are holding their own, like Kilmarnock, Aberdeen, St Johnstone. You are not going to get easy games, you need to dig in to get results. It looks like it’s going to be a competitive league.”