IT is a credit to Christophe Berra’s vitality that he has not missed a single one of Hearts’ pre-season training sessions. He sat out one of the club’s four summer friendlies, reluctantly. He is 34 with fitness statistics of someone much younger, a positive sign as he embarks on his 18th campaign in professional football.
The captain will lead Hearts out to face Dundee United in tonight’s opening Betfred Cup tie with mind and body ready for another gruelling year. If he is supposed to be waning in his mid-30s, he clearly missed the memo.
Berra can still stride ahead of others in team running exercises and never asks to sit out or catch a breath. When told to rest and recuperate, he is far from happy. That appetite to put himself on the line remains as fierce as ever. It would be a brave man who suggested his career might be entering its twilight.
“In pre-season, I did really well in all the tests and the running. I’ve always been naturally quite fit,” he explained to the Evening News. “I’ve trained every session so it will come to a point where you have to manage it as you get older.
“I feel fit. I probably prioritise recovery more now, making sure I do the right things and eat correctly. I always did that but I probably take more care now. Ultimately, you need to make sure you’re fit and ready to go come matchdays.”
He is ready for this evening. Hearts’ fitness coach Tom Taylor can attest to that. “Tom said the other day: ‘If I pulled you out of training, you’d moan.’ Which I would. I’d rather train than do a recovery session in the gym. I’ve always been like that,” said Berra.
“I want to train rather than be stuck inside. That’s down to Tom, he will know when it’s time to say: ‘You’ve done a big load, maybe have a down day.’ He is qualified in that department and you need to take that advice.”
The relentless approach has worked well throughout a successful career in England and Scotland. Berra has rarely missed a game in two spells with Hearts, plus four years at Wolverhampton Wanderers and another four at Ipswich Town.
“I didn’t start playing regularly until I was 21 or 22 here. Down in England, you have years and years of playing 46 games a season in the Championship. I’ve managed to do that. I missed three-and-a-half months with injury last year, but hopefully I’ve come back stronger. I want to start the season well and stay fit. It’s important we keep the squad fit as well to get everyone competing for places.”
That may well be driving him on as much as anything else right now. The arrival of Craig Halkett, the Livingston captain, at Tynecastle Park provides Berra and his central defensive partner John Souttar with a serious fight for their places. The Congolese internationalist Clevid Dikamona is also challenging for game-time in the same area.
“If you don’t have competition, some people take their foot off the gas and take their place for granted. To compete at the top, you need competition. I’ve always had that at every club,” said Berra.
Another motivation is the desire to help Hearts improve on two disappointing league campaigns. Tonight’s meeting with United is a League Cup group fixture and Hearts reached the tournament’s semi-finals last term. Like most clubs, however, the league is the priority. Successive sixth-place finishes just don’t cut it at an organisation striving to be the third-biggest in Scotland.
“We have finished sixth in the league in the last two seasons. Obviously we see ourselves as capable of finishing higher,” said Berra. “You have the size of the club and good individual players, it’s just putting it all together and getting that consistency. We need to up our game in all departments.
“The league table doesn’t lie. We had a great start last year but then we were very inconsistent. We know we have to do better. We need to have an identity. There will be dips but, for 90 per cent of the season, you want to be consistent. We will have a way of playing and a structure which will win us more games.”
He is asked to expand on that “identity” bit. Hearts’ style of play has drawn plenty criticism in recent years so supporters will be intrigued by the possibility of a different approach. Berra is reluctant to go into major detail for understandable fear of giving away internal secrets.
“We are working on things on the training pitch and hopefully it comes to the fore in the games,” he said. “Expectations don’t just come from the fans and the staff but from us ourselves. We are a big club in Scotland and we should be up there challenging at the top.”
In their minds, the Hearts squad know what is expected of them. Berra and other senior players will reinforce the message. A Betfred Cup semi-final and a Scottish Cup final last season was progress, now the plan is to go a step further. Berra rejoined Hearts in 2017 looking for tangible rewards.
“When you look at it, the summer break isn’t actually that long. Now we start it all again. You need to prepare for it physically but also mentally. We have expectations and we want to fulfil them. You want to be part of something which is progressing and going somewhere. We all want to achieve something at the end of it, which is to win a trophy or get into Europe. We also want some wins in Europe as well.”