Intoxicated by World Cup fever, Christophe Berra returned to pre-season training today to prepare for what promises to be one of the biggest campaigns of his career.
Buoyed by a year in which he forced his way back in to a burgeoning Scotland squad and was voted by supporters as high-flying Ipswich Town’s best player, the 29-year-old former Hearts captain has never felt in better fettle.
A return to the English Premier League, where he held his own for three years as a Wolves player, and a dream crack at Euro 2016 are the two ultimate prizes on Berra’s horizon if he and his team-mates at club and international level can build on the momentum they generated last season.
“This is one of the biggest seasons of my career,” he told the Evening News as he returned to Suffolk following a summer break in Edinburgh. “Last season was a very good one for me, personally. To get the player of the year award is a great honour and does your confidence a lot of good. But last season’s past now – it’s a new season coming up and I’ve got to prove myself all over again.”
Having progressed relatively serenely since breaking on to the scene at Hearts around a decade ago, Berra had to endure the first real crisis of his career in the early part of 2013 when his decision not to sign a new contract with Wolves resulted in him being banished from the team by manager Dean Saunders. Being sidelined for the last three months of his predominantly enjoyable four-and-a-half-year spell at Molineux led to him losing his Scotland starting berth, as well as, briefly, his place in the squad, as Gordon Strachan put his faith in the likes of Russell Martin and Grant Hanley.
“It was the first real setback of my career,” said Berra. “I felt I needed a fresh challenge but it was disappointing that I didn’t play the last 15, 16 games at Wolves as, prior to that, I’d been having a good season under Stale Solbakken. I bounced back from it and signed for Ipswich, though, and it’s turned out to be a good thing.
“I’ve been back in the past few Scotland squads and it’s been good to be involved again. The manager’s obviously stuck with the players who’ve done well when I missed out, so it’s just about being patient and hopefully my time [in the starting XI] will come again.”
Berra has extra incentive to cement himself in Strachan’s plans in the coming season, as the next major tournament takes place in his father Christian’s homeland. The Scots, who kick off their Euro 2016 campaign away to Germany in just over two months’ time, feel they have a realistic chance of qualifying from a section which also contains Ireland, Georgia, Poland and Gibraltar. “Watching the World Cup makes you extra determined to get to a major tournament,” said Berra. “Especially being part of a small nation like ours, it would be the pinnacle of everyone’s career if we could make it to France.
“My dad and his side of the family are all French so it would mean a lot to me to get there. My dad’s been in Scotland since his early 20s but he’d love to see me playing for Scotland in France. I’m sure all my cousins would come out the woodwork for it if we got there.
“Our group is a hard one to call. Germany are obviously the outright favourites, but after that it’s a free-for-all.”
Berra will be 31 by the time Euro 2016 comes around, but even though he is at an age where many of his compatriots find themselves unable to continue at such a competitive level in England, one of Edinburgh’s most successful exports of recent times feels in prime condition and is intent on scaling new heights.
“I’m going into my sixth full season in England, which is pretty good going,” he said. “It’s not easy down there – it’s a totally different ball game to playing in Scotland – but I think I’ve held my own and I’ve really enjoyed it. As a defender, these are my peak years coming up. If I stay fit, I can still play at a high level until I’m 33, 34 years old. That’s my ambition.”
After that, would a return to Hearts, whom he left in 2009, be a possibility? “I’ve never said I wouldn’t go back to Hearts. I’d never say never on anything, and maybe later in my career, you never know.”
In the meantime, Berra feels his old club have struck on a good combination in their bid to win promotion from the SPFL Championship, with director of football Craig Levein, who gave Berra his debut, working in tandem with head coach Robbie Neilson, his former team-mate. “I think that set-up will work well,” said Berra. “They obviously get on well together and I think they’re the right people to get the club sorted from top to bottom and get it back on track.
“I spoke to Robbie when I was back at Tynecastle for the Partick game at the end of the season. He’s a top man and this is a great opportunity for him to prove himself as a manager. It’s a big job for him but he’ll relish it.
“Craig Levein signed me and played me briefly when he was at Hearts and also at international level – he’s someone I’ve got a lot of respect for. I think he’s the right man for that job.”