Memories of watching from the substitutes’ bench as one of the strongest teams in Hearts’ modern history struggled to beat a third-tier side in a Hampden final ensure Christophe Berra won’t be taking victory over Inverness Caledonian Thistle for granted today.
The current Tynecastle skipper was just 21 and in his first spell at the club when Valdas Ivanauskas’s star-studded side, who had just finished second in the top-flight, found themselves up against little Gretna, then of the old Second Division, in the 2006 Scottish Cup final.
On paper, it looked one of the most lopsided Scottish Cup final match-ups ever, with a Hearts side containing the likes of Takis Fyssas, Rudi Skacel, Paul Hartley and Edgaras Jankauskas widely expected to swat aside Rowan Alexander’s minnows. Instead, it developed into a horribly fraught afternoon for the Edinburgh side as they were roundly booed by their huge support after being held to a 1-1 draw over 120 minutes before holding their nerve to win the penalty shootout.
Berra is hoping there is no repeat of that anxious day against lower-league opposition as Hearts face on-form Championship side Inverness in this afternoon’s Scottish Cup semi-final. “It was a great occasion,” recalls Berra. “Afterwards, the party with the fans was great and everything around it. But when I look back on it, it could have gone either way. It was a penalty shootout against a team that you are expected to beat. The team Hearts had at the time was probably on a lot bigger wage bill with players who, no disrespect, had a lot higher profile than those we have now.
“That shows you how difficult football can be. If we hadn’t won that, the team would have got slaughtered. But they did. They just scraped through on penalties, which shows you how fine the margins are in football. No disrespect, but Gretna were a smaller team than Inverness are. That shows you it doesn’t matter how good you are. We finished second that season, we were flying high, but it was a still a tough game.”
Hearts head into today’s match buoyed by the fact they defeated Inverness 5-0 in a Betfred Cup group-stage match at Tynecastle back in July, a win which played a significant part in fuelling the feelgood factor around the club in the opening months of the season. That sense of harmony has since disappeared amid an underwhelming run of league form over the past five months. Berra admits today’s Hampden showdown with John Robertson’s team is likely to be a totally different type of match to the previous meeting last summer. “I remember we had to win that game because of the points deduction (from the Cove Rangers game),” said Berra. “Obviously we’re not as high flying as we were at that stage of the season so we need to re-discover that form.
“It’s a different occasion and a different pitch at Hampden and with the stadium only likely to be half-full if we’re lucky, it’s a game that brings different pressures.
“It’s a game that we will embrace, though. It’s a great stadium, but the atmosphere might not be as good as it would be if it was full. Sometimes parts of it are away from the pitch but it’s still a remarkable stadium and it’s an occasion we’re looking forward to.”
Berra knows that victory today would grant him the personal honour of leading his team out for a final next month against either Celtic or Aberdeen, who meet at the national stadium tomorrow. “It would mean the world to me to lead Hearts into a cup final,” said the veteran centre-back, who has never previously played in final. “It would be a highlight in my career.”
Hearts are deemed to be under significant pressure going into today’s match, by virtue of being heavy favourites and also due to the fact they have slipped from first place to sixth in the Premiership over the past five months.
“Every game brings pressure from the fans and first and foremost from yourselves to perform to a standard,” said Berra. “We’re favourites from being in a higher league but Inverness have earned the right to be in the semi-final. We played Partick in the quarter-final and we dominated, but the longer the game goes on and you don’t finish games off, it can become difficult. Inverness will be no different. It’s a high-pressure game with a lot at stake and our focus is to win the game.”
Berra is well aware that there has been no shortage of criticism aimed at the Hearts players and manager Craig Levein in recent months, and particularly in the wake of last weekend’s Edinburgh derby defeat at home to Hibs. “Ach, I’m not daft, if you play football you have to take criticism on the chin,” he said. “The fans have that right. If they want to criticise you need to take it, it’s not the first time the gaffer has been there and it won’t be the last time.
“At any club if you lose games there will be people who want to have a go at you. That’s what happens if you’re the manager, a coach or a player and it’s never going to change. It will still be the same 20 years down the line. That’s just the way it is.
“Unfortunately we are not a Manchester City who win all the time - and even they got criticised after they got beaten by Tottenham and Pe Gaurdiola’s one of the best managers in the world. When you play sport you set yourself up to take the good when it comes and the bad when it comes as well, that’s part and parcel.
“The manager has just been normal this week. I think you have got to be like that – if you don’t, you won’t last very long. He is experienced enough to know how to handle the pressure and stuff like that. Sometimes after games you just switch off.
“Tynecastle is a hard place to play and you have to take it on the chin. But don’t tell me everyone in that ground doesn’t like the manager. It will be split. No matter where you go, Parkhead, Old Trafford, it’s the same. You can’t please everyone so all you can do is give your best and see what happens.”
Hearts are hoping their best today is good enough to book a first Scottish Cup final appearance since 2012.