He left Hearts with Russian owners, £30million debt, a burnt-out fax machine and the original revolving door at Riccarton. Christophe Berra has returned to a very different football club.
Yesterday, he was unveiled as the new Hearts captain inside the plush Oriam performance centre – overlooking indoor and outdoor training pitches at Scotland’s most prestigious sports facility where the team train. He signed a three-year contract to work for a local Edinburgh owner, under Scottish coaches and financial stability, and play in front of a beautifully modernised Tynecastle Park.
Hearts have changed beyond recognition since selling their then-skipper to Wolverhampton Wanderers for £2.3m in January 2009. It is a major part of the reason he has come back to his formative club after eight and a half years in England.
Another is that his life is also totally transformed. Aged 32, he now bears a few wrinkles on his previously unblemished face. Fatherhood can do that to a man. He is a doting dad to four-year-old Savannah and pleaded with Ipswich Town earlier this month to release him to be nearer his daughter in the Scottish Capital.
The sense of compassion shown by the Ipswich chairman Marcus Evans provided Hearts with next season’s skipper. Berra is quick, imposing and influential. Most of all he is experienced and fully understands the club having come through their youth academy.
He is back where he began as a fresh-faced teenager eager to break into Craig Levein’s 2003/04 Hearts team. Surrounded by a very different landscape, no-one would be against the giant centre-back becoming a figurehead in Ian Cathro’s side.
Yet the more that changes, the more that stays the same. Fans at Tynecastle remain ferociously demanding – as head coach Ian Cathro can testify – and next season’s Edinburgh derbies against Hibs will be no different to those Berra enjoyed ten years ago. His last derby in January 2009 saw then-Hibs manager Mixu Paatelainen accuse him of “leaping like a brown trout” to get Steven Fletcher sent off.
“It’s like anywhere. I played at Ipswich, played at Wolves, played for Scotland,” he shrugged. “If you’re not playing well, you get booed. Fans can be fickle. That’s just the way it is. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve come here, been made captain and it’s a big responsibility for me on and off the pitch.
“Obviously, off the pitch, I live in Edinburgh and walk the streets. I want to be able to walk those streets with my head held high, having won games and done well – not shying away from people because we’ve lost. I’m 32 now, ready for the responsibility.
“Ipswich had an option on me and, if you’ve read what [manager] Mick McCarthy has said, he wanted to keep me. That was great. I’ve had eight-and-a-half years down there but one of the biggest factors is my daughter because I’ve been away from her for three years.
“I’ve also said that, even when I left Hearts, I kept in touch with results. Even in the changing room at Ipswich for a three o’clock kick-off, I’d be switching the telly over to Scottish football to see the derby. I would get stick for that.
“I come from here, I know what it means to play in those games. No disrespect to Wolves and West Brom or Ipswich and Norwich, but I never had that same feeling in those games.
“Going on the bus to the derby, along Princes Street and down Easter Road, getting people sticking the finger up at you. You’re buzzing because you know what it means to the people.”
Hearts is about more than beating Hibs, however, and recent months have left fans frustrated. The run of poor results since December didn’t escape Berra down in East Anglia. “They didn’t have many of these training facilities last time I was here. It’s changed. The pitch out there is the same but the building, the whole structure, has changed dramatically. Hopefully that’s a sign of the way the club is going – and we can become a force again in Scottish football.
“I spoke to people I know who told me that, off the pitch, the club has never been stronger. It’s now our job to get the performances back on the pitch and start winning games.
“I drove round by the stadium and the new stand is going to look awesome. Hopefully by winning games we can fill it and make it a place that rivals hate to play at.
“The club has changed since I was here, people behind the scenes, physios etc. But that happens.”
Experiences in England allied to 35 Scotland caps give him all the necessary ingredients to don the Hearts captain’s armband once again. Berra played in the Premier League for three of his four and a half years at Wolves. He followed McCarthy to Suffolk in 2013 to become a mainstay of the Ipswich defence.
He is already a vital component in Cathro’s side for next season and is expected to play on the left of a back three, with John Souttar in the centre and Aaron Hughes on the right. Perhaps his biggest asset will be leadership, alongside the likes of Hughes and Don Cowie.
“Character is being in the changing room and when things are down you have to be thick-skinned and keep spirits high,” he said. “On the pitch you have to be a moany b*****d. Scots moan – and that’s fine. People might hate you but that’s fine. It’s all about getting reactions.
“I’m not moaning because I don’t like people, I’m just being moany and that can get the best out of people. You also learn who can take it and who can’t and deal with things accordingly. The manager will know the characters and how to deal with things too.
“I’ve not come here to think it’s easy. I have pride in my performance and I want to do well as an individual but also for the team. I want to help the team to do well and help younger players. Hearts are renowned for bringing young players through and I want to help them. When I came through there were professionals such as Paul Hartley, Steven Pressley and the like. I was a youth player and if I was in the first-team dressing room doing my job, I wouldn’t talk back or look up ..
“Football has changed because a lot of youth players in England don’t have that respect. That’s maybe how society is today. It might be different up here, I don’t know if there are many egos here because the higher the level the bigger the ego.”
Although he missed the harrowing administration process Hearts staff went through in 2013, Berra lived through plenty turmoil as a young player. The Riccarton Three, Vladimir Romanov’s madness and spiralling debt made Riccarton an interesting place to go about your daily business. Berra’s transfer to Wolves, fittingly, kept wolves from the Tynecastle door at that time.
“Someone did play £2.3 million for me so that maybe helped,” he smiled. “When I left it was the last day of the transfer window so it must have been needed and I hope it paid back money invested in me coming up through the youths and into the first-team. Now that I’m back, I want to play well for the club and get back to winning ways.”