Christophe Berra is making a pretty good fist of living up to his billing as one of the Scottish Premiership’s transfer coups of the past summer.
A few weeks after it was confirmed in May that he was returning to Hearts, the 32-year-old centre-back attempted to douse the hype building among supporters in light of the fact he remained a first-choice starter for Scotland who would have still been playing in the English Championship this term if not for family reasons. “There is a lot of expectation, so if I have a bad game, people will be right on me,” he joked, in an interview with the Evening News in mid-June. “I’m human, though – I will have ups and downs. I just want to go in there, do my best and try and lead by example.”
A few months into his second spell as Hearts captain, it is safe to say that Berra is having the desired effect. “Christophe’s been a godsend, really,” manager Craig Levein told the Evening News following a five-game run of Premiership fixtures in which the Scotland defender has helped Hearts keep three clean sheets, concede just three goals and lose only once.
Since a wretched Betfred Cup campaign which led to Ian Cathro’s dismissal and a predictable opening-day thrashing at Celtic Park in the league, the Tynecastle side have embarked on a spirited revival. Kilmarnock, Rangers and Aberdeen have all been shut out over the past six weeks, while Hamilton Accies were unable to break down the door to force an equaliser despite sustained spells of second-half pressure after reducing a 2-0 deficit to 2-1 just before half-time.
The fragility which seeped into Hearts’ play during Cathro’s eight months as head coach is fast giving way to a new-found resolve, with the stabilising influence of Berra underpinning a strong, albeit unspectacular, start to a uniquely demanding campaign in which his team have been unsettled by managerial change and deprived of home advantage.
“Christophe’s brought a level of fight, determination and nous that we were probably lacking,” continued Levein. “With his attitude and the way he behaves himself around the club, he wasn’t made captain for no reason. He brings these qualities to the group, which is really important. He’s relishing the responsibility he’s got at Hearts, he’s taken that on board, and he’s helped enormously with everything we’ve been trying to do.”
It speaks volumes for his longevity that Berra is still going strong 14 years after being handed his Hearts debut by Levein as an 18-year-old in a 2-1 loss away to Dundee United in 2003. In the intervening period, the Edinburgh-born defender has captained the Tynecastle side in his early 20s, been sold to Wolverhampton Wanderers for £2.3m, played regularly for three consecutive seasons in England’s Premier League with the Molineux club, been branded the best centre-back in the Championship by Mick McCarthy during his time with Ipswich Town, and accumulated 38 Scotland caps – the most recent of which were collected when he started against both Lithuania and Malta in the national team’s double-header earlier this month. Despite taking what may be perceived as a step down by returning to Hearts to be closer to his daughter, Levein is adamant that Berra can still be deemed in his prime. The manager is relishing being able to build a defence around two current international centre-backs, with Aaron Hughes remaining a regular starter for Northern Ireland at 38.
“I’d say Christophe’s as good as he ever was,” said Levein. “People may argue with me and say that he played at a higher level in England but the fact he’s playing so well for the national team would certainly indicate that he’s playing as well as he’s ever done. When we can get him and Aaron on the pitch at the same time, then I feel comfortable that we’re going to make good decisions.”
Levein believes that the presence of Berra can accelerate the development of Scotland Under-21 centre-back John Souttar, with the pair having started together in defence to promising effect in the last five league games. Berra himself was the beneficiary of having an experienced partner to learn from in his early days in the Hearts team, when he often played alongside Steven Pressley, a player 11 years older than him. Likewise, Levein recalls learning from Sandy Jardine, 16 years his senior, when he first played for Hearts in the early 1980s.
“I believe in that kind of model,” said Levein of having an experienced defender mentoring a young partner. “I was lucky enough to be brought up playing alongside Sandy Jardine when I was younger. I believe that having an experienced guy round about you and talking you through the game is hugely important and very valuable for a young defender.”
Berra is the only Hearts player to have started all ten competitive matches this season. In addition to playing every minute of those games for his club, he also played the full 180 minutes of Scotland’s recent double-header and was described as “excellent” by manager Gordon Strachan after the 3-0 win over Lithuania in Vilnius before heading the opener against Malta at Hampden three nights later. Clean sheets in seven of those 12 matches for club and country suggest the defender is showing no sign of waning despite being just four months shy of his 33rd birthday.
Levein left 34-year-old Don Cowie out of his starting line-up on Saturday to protect him from the strain of playing on an artificial pitch, while he suggested he would have done likewise with Hughes even if the veteran Northern Irishman hadn’t been injured. The manager never had any thought of doing so with Berra, who has been a regular starter for most of his career and generally managed to steer clear of injuries. “Christophe’s a youngster compared to the other two,” said Levein. “He’s pretty robust – I’m not really concerned about him at this point in his career. I think he’s got a few more years before he needs to start worrying about playing on plastic pitches and things like that.”