Christophe Berra believes he has flourished by spending the bulk of his career playing under highly-regarded former international centre-backs like Mick McCarthy and Craig Levein who appreciate the fundamental principles of defending.
The Hearts captain is being managed by Levein for a second time at Tynecastle after he was given his debut by the Fifer 14 years ago. The pair also had three years working closely together when Levein was in charge of Scotland between 2009 and 2012, while Berra spent the majority of his eight-and-a-half years in England playing under McCarthy, the no-nonsense Yorkshireman and former Republic of Ireland player and manager, at both Wolverhampton Wanderers and Ipswich Town.
The 32-year-old, who has never been renowned as a ball-playing centre-back, bases his own success primarily on being solid defensively.
“The manager just wants us to do the basics – head it, put tackles in, get our blocks in,” said Berra, ahead of today’s trip to Partick Thistle. “That’s not just the defenders, that’s over the whole pitch. Especially up here in Scotland, you have to be competitive first and foremost, win the first contacts and the second balls, and if you do that well you’ve always got a chance to win the game.
“I made my debut under the manager and look at all the defenders who have worked under him – your job first and foremost is to defend. The manager I have worked under the most is Mick McCarthy and he was similar as well. I think as a defender, football changes but first and foremost you’ve got to defend and try and keep the ball out of the net.”
Berra has forged an impressive career by making himself a nightmare for opposition strikers to play against. “Craig and Mick were both centre-backs, so they know what it means if you can dominate your striker – it gives you a foothold towards winning the game,” he said. “If the opposition striker is having a bad day, it’s good for you.
“I’ve learned a lot from Craig and Mick but they can also be my biggest critics! That’s something you need to take on the chin.”
After a couple of resolute displays against Aberdeen and Hamilton Accies over the past fortnight, Berra and his team-mates have so far managed to avoid being lambasted by Levein since he returned to the dugout a few weeks ago. The captain knows a rant from the manager won’t be far away if standards dip below the levels Levein wants
“He has been out the game for a while but he’s finding his feet,” said Berra. “At the moment, because we played well against Aberdeen and Hamilton, it has all been hunky-dory. But I’m sure when we don’t reach the standards he expects, we’ll know all about it. I have still to see that this time, but I have seen it in the past so we know we can’t afford to drop our standards.
“We’ve had jokes about it in the changing-room and it’s something that some of them have not experienced yet – it’s maybe only me and Prince Buaben (from Levein’s time at Dundee United).
“I’d like to see some of the faces when it happens. I might be on the end of it, but you have to take it on the chin. When I look back at 18, 19 you feel maybe a bit undone by it but when I look back now it was really good for me. It was a learning curve and probably made me the person I am.”
Levein this week told the Evening News that Berra has been “a godsend” in terms of helping Hearts rediscover some resilience following a dire finish to last season. The centre-back has been a commanding and steadying influence since returning to the Tynecastle club in the summer, but is not taking the high praise of his manager for granted.
“I read that article and thought ‘don’t, you’re setting me up to fail here’,” said Berra. “I take it with a pinch of salt, I don’t get carried away, although it’s nice to get nice things said about you. In the end, I’ll be judged by what I do on the pitch. It’s good having that extra responsibility around the changing-room and on game days as well. I try and be vocal. But I’m not a robot and there will be times when I might be at fault for things and maybe just off it – that’s when you need your team-mates around you.”