Having once fretted that Hearts wouldn’t be here for him to rejoin, Christophe Berra today explained how he is thriving being back at a rejuvenated Tynecastle.
The club captain admitted he always planned to return to Edinburgh and believes the club are going from strength to strength three years since owner Ann Budge took them out of administration. The 32-year-old returned to his formative team in May after eight-and-a-half years in England with Wolverhampton Wanderers and, latterly, Ipswich Town.
He watched with concern down south as Hearts came close to going out of business completely in 2013, as former owner Vladimir Romanov plunged them into administration with debts of nearly £30 million. Berra is now part of a renaissance in Gorgie which continues to gather pace. With around 8000 fans contributing cash through Foundation of Hearts, a new £12 million main stand is under construction.
The Scotland defender did worry about Hearts’ existence at one point but knew the strength of their fanbase would be a powerful tool to keep them alive.
“Obviously I was concerned about what was happening at the club but, deep down, I knew there was a great bunch of fans who would back them. In the end, that’s what made the difference – especially through the Foundation of Hearts,” he said.
“Hearts are getting bigger and better, with the redevelopment of the stadium, the additions to the squad and we have a really good manager with a great support staff behind him. Hopefully all the hard work in pre-season will pay off in the first competitive game.
“I always said my plan was to come back, even to my parents. It was always something I wanted to do so I’m grateful for the opportunity.”
Berra’s initiation process involved singing The Lion Sleeps Tonight to his hysterical team-mates during last week’s trip to Dublin and Belfast.
The last time he stood in front of a group of Hearts players, he was a young captain telling them they wouldn’t be paid on time.
“There were a lot of good times under Romanov but there were also a lot of bad times,” he recalled.
“I had left by the time they went into administration. I was here when I was captain and we weren’t getting paid on time and I had to tell the players, although we always did get paid.
“At the time, I was quite young so I didn’t maybe grasp how crucial it was for certain players. Luckily enough, in the back of my head I knew I would be moving at one point. You don’t realise until maybe you’re a bit older.
“When I look back now it’s probably made me a stronger character as well. It’s not nice at the time, I left when the s**t really did hit the fan. The club has come back bigger and stronger now, the new stand is getting built and we’re signing some quality players and hopefully we can have a good season.
“It’s different now, the new owner Ann is first-class in how she represents the club, what she’s done for the club and how she is around the players as well.”
Budge’s different ways with the players are in contrast to Romanov’s attempt to box with striker Roman Bednar during a pre-season trip. “I met Romanov a few times. He was fine with me. He didn’t punch me,” smiled Berra. “Ann is really straight down the middle. She is honest with you and that’s all you can ask. She won’t punch you.
“Everyone really respects her and she’s done a great job and hopefully she can take this club on to bigger and better things.”
Budge and Berra hit it off even during contract negotiations earlier this year. “Basically, I was emailing back and forth to her. I think she would admit that I was a dream in contract negotiations,” said the defender.
“I wasn’t needy or high maintenance. I wanted to come back and I was happy with what I got. I think both parties were happy that I signed. I’ve got a good relationship with her and long may that continue.”
Berra will make his second Tynecastle debut tomorrow night against Newcastle United in a friendly. “I’m really looking forward to the experience of playing in front of the new stand, even if it’s not quite ready yet,” he said.
“With the glass front, it looks great and I’m sure opposition players will be looking forward to playing at Tynecastle but we have to make sure they don’t enjoy it on the pitch.
“It’s something that’s hopefully going to help us attract players and we’ve added a few good ones already. Newcastle is another step in our pre-season preparations. Fortunately, I managed to beat them 3-1 last time out with Ipswich. We know what they’re capable of.
“They have better players and a lot more money than us but it’s something we’re looking forward to, to get another few minutes under our belts. We want to be ready to go full throttle on Tuesday night [in the Betfred League Cup against Elgin City], even if we know it might take four or five games to get to full match fitness. We’ll be going there to win.”