Christophe Berra: Gretna lesson shows Hearts must beware lower-league teams
Experience tells Christophe Berra Hearts never do anything in a straightforward fashion. Whether it is building a stand, changing managers or pursuing cup progress, there are always complications. Monday night at Firhill was a classic example.
Partick Thistle are bottom of the league below Hearts but managed to defy predictions and earn a Scottish Cup quarter-final replay at Tynecastle Park with a 1-1 draw. Awaiting the winners in the semi-finals is another Championship club, John Robertson’s Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
For Berra, it all evokes memories of the 2006 final during his first spell with the Edinburgh club, when top-flight Hearts met Gretna from not one but two leagues below. A 1-1 draw at Hampden Park that day took the final to penalties, with Hearts eventually prevailing to stabilise the increasing pulse rates of their supporters.
Berra was an unused substitute in the game as Steven Pressley and Ibrahim Tall occupied the central defensive berths. It nonetheless taught him a lesson he has never forgotten: Don’t take the smaller clubs lightly.
He will reiterate that message over the coming days to underline the diligence Hearts require to beat the two lower-league opponents standing between them and a place in the Scottish Cup final again. “If it was that easy, eh? I don’t think we have ever done anything easy,” said the club captain.
“The last time I was involved in the cup final we beat Gretna on penalties and that went right down to the wire, so it is about getting through. There was a bit of frustration at the end on Monday because we felt we did enough to win the game, they had one chance and scored. The hardest thing in football is putting the ball in the net and that’s what we couldn’t do.
“We are not daft. It is all about attitude and application. We showed great attitude and application, especially the first half. We were on the front foot, competitive and they were on the back foot. They were there for the taking, we just couldn’t’ finish them off so credit to them.
“But yes, we have never done anything easy at Hearts. Not many teams can unless you are a Man City or, I was going to say Liverpool but not even them just now. Maybe Celtic. That’s football for you. We will do it the hard way and our aim is to win the cup.”
Hearts might have had a penalty when Thistle’s Gary Harkins challenged Uche Ikpeazu in the box 15 minutes from the end of Monday’s tie. Realistically, the visitors should have been out of sight by then due to the number of goalscoring chances they created. on the night.
A clever corner-kick routine involving the Australians Oliver Bozanic and Ben Garuccio created a chance for Berra to send a looping header into the net to open the scoring on 12 minutes. Thistle’s equaliser from Christie Elliott arrived on 72 minutes and led to Hearts leaving Glasgow harbouring a good deal of frustration.
“Could we have scored two or three goals in the first half? They had one chance. It was a great ball, it could have been offside and we could have had a penalty against Uche,” said Berra.
“Some people say it was a stonewaller but I haven’t seen it again. That’s football for you. If you don’t kill teams off you can get punished and we switched off for their goal. We are still in the cup and look forward to the replay at Tynecastle.”
On his goal, the 34-year-old explained that timing and momentum helped him beat the Partick goalkeeper Conor Hazard.
“I have not seen it again. It was a header. I should have scored a couple of minutes before, I had a header but I didn’t catch it right. The next one I got good run and leap and I could see the keeper was trying to tip it but he just couldn’t get it. I’m just glad that it set us off on the right path. On another day we could have won two or three.
“Obviously whoever gets through it is a favourable draw but we are not looking that far ahead. We have Dundee on Saturday and our aim is back to the league and we want to be top four.”
League business takes precedence until Tuesday night’s replay. No Hearts player left Firhill more frustrated than Ikpeazu, the hulking English striker who is desperate to score his first goal since returning from a four-month injury absence last month. He will hope to make Dundee suffer at Dens Park this weekend.
“He is frustrated, he wants to score goals, you know what he’s like,” explained Berra. “He’s got to learn. He’s working his socks off, he’s a handful, just to do things simple, which he did most of the game. He shouldn’t get too frustrated. Strikers want to score goals and it will come.”
The perception within the walls of Riccarton that Ikpeazu deserves more protection from Scotland’s referees is one Berra concurs with. The forward’s physical strength and ability to hold off more than one defender at a time is his greatest asset, but Hearts feel it is beginning to work against him in some respects.
That notion returned against Thistle, with Ikpeazu a focal point for many of his team’s attacking adventures.
“If that was someone else for the penalty he might have got it but because it’s big Uche, he sometimes thinks he can run through a brick wall,” said Berra.
“It is a hard one. Because he is big people think he can take a lot more. If that was other players they would have gone down many times but he is a big, honest lad.”
The player himself knows there is nothing for it other than to keep going and hope he will soon find the net and ease the tension within himself. If he feels a little hard done by, he is managing not to show it.
“He does but at half-time he was getting the better of it,” said Berra. “He does bully a lot of people and his attributes. Sometimes you have to play to his strengths. He did cause problems in the first half. We just couldn’t put the ball in the net.”