Nowadays, these are the games Christophe Berra lives for. Edinburgh derbies bursting with passion and rivalry still rouse intense emotions within the Hearts captain, even at the age of 34. It is doubtful if he will ever approach this fixture without excitement and adrenaline coursing through his body.
He is, in his own words, motivated by the banter and even abuse reaching fever-pitch before, during and after Hearts-Hibs encounters. A few notable verbals came his way from Hibs supporters in the warm-up prior to December’s meeting at Easter Road, which the visitors went on to win 1-0. Berra could not have planned it any better.
Having played in England’s Premier League and sampled both the Black Country and East Anglian derbies, the defender still finds the Edinburgh equivalent as riveting as when he first sampled it in his teens.
“There is only a couple of days to recover from playing at Ibrox on Wednesday night,” he said. “Maybe that’s a good thing. Adrenaline will be flowing and I still feel pumped up. There is always that excitement when you’re going into a derby. The away fans are there so you will be getting some stick, then our fans get involved in the banter as well.
“These games are massive when you come from Edinburgh and there is no better feeling. There will be nerves, that’s natural, but I think that’s part and parcel of football. When you’re playing you don’t really hear what fans are shouting. You’ll hear it if it’s in the warm-up but we don’t warm up at the Hibs end. If there’s a corner you might get a bit of abuse but that’s part of the game. If you can’t take it then you shouldn’t be in this sport. It spurs you on.”
He laughed recalling the pre-match welcome he got at Easter Road.
“You always do, eh? And their players will get it at Tynecastle. That’s why you play this sport, because you want these big occasions. After the 90 minutes that’s it over and done with.”
Berra still feels privileged playing in these high-octane games and with that also comes great responsibility. As club captain, he was appalled seeing a coin thrown from the Hearts support at former Hibs manager Neil Lennon when the clubs last met at Tynecastle in October. Berra’s goalkeeper, Zdenek Zlamal, was also struck by an away fan while retrieving the ball the same night
“Things last time went too far. People have to realise this is a sport and you have to be careful. There is a limit to the abuse,” said the Scotland internationalist. “We need to keep it under tabs and make sure this is a good spectacle which doesn’t make the headlines for all the wrong reasons.”
Hearts sit one point ahead of Hibs in the Ladbrokes Premiership table, with the clubs placed fifth and sixth respectively. Whoever prevails this time gets the added kudos of being above the other enter the post-split fixtures.
Losing 3-0 away to Rangers on Wednesday night was hardly the ideal preparation for such a crucial game but Berra is adamant he and his colleagues will be ready to engage come lunchtime tomorrow.
“We’re at home, it’s an early kick-off, live on TV, so the boys know how important this is for us, the club and the fans. No stone will be left unturned. We have not a bad record against Hibs since our manager took over,” he pointed out.
“I don’t think I’ve ever won at Ibrox. I think I’ve had two draws in all the games I’ve played there. Maybe people go there thinking Rangers are weak but I watched them against Celtic and they should have got a draw. Going 3-0 behind at the start of the second half killed us the other night, but our focus is on Hibs now. If we get three points tomorrow, that would be six from nine in a week [against Aberdeen, Rangers and Hibs] and we would definitely have taken that.
“It’s a derby, you’ve got to win the derbies. Especially at home. We beat them at Easter Road last time but these games have been really tight recently. We want to win this one to get one over on them but also to push towards Europe and gain momentum going into the Scottish Cup semi-final next week.”
Hibs arrive in Gorgie feeling upbeat after a strong start under new manager Paul Heckingbottom. He was named Premiership Manager of the Month yesterday with a run of five wins, two draws and just one defeat from eight matches in charge so far. Berra is familiar with his work.
“I remember playing [for Ipswich Town] against him when he was at Barnsley. He did really well there and had a really good team. He was obviously punching above his weight and I’ve heard good things about him since he took over at Hibs. They have been on a good run of results and we know how tough the game will be. Sometimes form goes out of the window in derbies.
“You have to be cool and calm. The game will be fast and furious and probably end-to-end. You have to take your chances when they come. Hibs have good attacking players, even guys from midfield who can chip in with goals. We want to impose our game on them instead of worrying too much about them.”
The words of a man who knows what to expect having been over the course countless times before in two spells with Hearts. Berra will never tire of Edinburgh derbies, though. They are one of the main reasons he rejoined his formative club back in 2017. The drama and excitement will easily keep him going until the end of his playing career.