Christophe Berra plays his 150th league match for Hearts tomorrow knowing the team’s consistency has seldom been better.
He recalls a scintillating period with George Burley in charge and leading the charge for Europe as captain under Csaba Laszlo. Current statistics showing one defeat in 15 stand comparable with any in modern maroon history.
Don’t expect Berra to arrive in Dingwall with an air of complacency about him, though. The trip to Ross County is hazardous for a team still with further improvement to come. The Europa League qualifying rounds are the target, either via league placing or a Scottish Cup run, and Berra is taking nothing for granted.
Now 33, he is in his second spell with Hearts having been one of the first to graduate from the youth academy. Experiences at the top level in England and at international level have taught him not to rest on laurels. He will be imparting that very message inside the away dressing-room at around 12.20pm tomorrow.
“We still want to finish in the top four. We have seven games to go until the split and we have tough games coming up. We need to earn the right to win but it’s going to be tight,” said Berra, speaking exclusively to the Evening News.
“Getting off to a slow start in the league wasn’t great, especially with so many away games. We’ve managed to get through that period and built up a bit of consistency. We only have one defeat in 15 but my view is you have to take that with a pinch of salt. You’re only as good as your last game.
“I don’t get too carried away. I’m not naive enough to do that. We’re nowhere near the finished article and we can improve drastically. That’s what we’re all striving to do – finish the season strongly. I’m sure the gaffer will try to get more players of his type in for next season. At the moment, we can only look to each game as they come.
“It’s good to have played so many league games for Hearts, obviously it will be more with cup matches. I don’t know how many appearances I’ve racked up over the years. It must be 500 at least. I’m lucky I’ve been injury-free and played regularly.”
Life in maroon wasn’t always as prosperous as it is presently, of course. Young Berra received a crash course in the harrowing side of football when Vladimir Romanov took charge of Hearts.
“There have been highs and lows. During the Romanov era when I was captain, I remember being told payment of your wages would be late. Telling the players – not many people have to deal with that in professional football in Britain. They were tough times but we ended up having some good seasons.
“You look back on the positive experiences. You look back at the season when we finished second [2005/06]. I was only a youngster coming through at the time. I was on the bench when we won the Scottish Cup that year and, although I was disappointed not to play, I was only 21. Then I played in Champions League qualifiers and Europa League qualifiers. Those things always stick out.”
One of the centre-back’s lingering ambitions is to lift a trophy with his formative club. It was one of the reasons he returned to Edinburgh last summer from Ipswich Town.
“It would be great. That’s every footballer’s aspiration,” he said. “Very few really achieve that. We will have to go on a good run and get a bit of luck on the way because it’s getting harder and harder every season.
“You can see the money Celtic are turning over because of the Champions League and it’s making the gap harder and harder to close. In a one-off game, you never know. We’re still a wee bit off that just now. There is a lot of improvement to come within the squad as the season goes on.”
While Hearts were setting clean sheet records and at times simply refusing to lose goals, County endured a difficult winter. They failed to win between November 4 and last weekend, a much-needed 4-1 victory away at Dundee. They remained bottom of the Premiership under Owen Coyle, a man Berra knows well from his spells with Wolves and Ipswich.
“I came up against him when he was Bolton manager, Blackburn and Burnley. You know what to expect from him. Ross County beat Dundee 4-1 in their last league game and this one is live on television so everyone is going to be up for it.
“Ross County have made some experienced signings. We won 2-1 up there earlier in the season. We had a man sent off but managed to hang on for a good three points.
“It’s great being in a team going through a strong period just now. Even our substitutes recently have made a big impact. Every player is bringing competition that every squad needs to reach their maximum.”