Hearts captain Christophe Berra hails Ann Budge for giving him chance to lift Scottish Cup
When Steven Pressley climbed the Hampden Park steps to lift the 2006 Scottish Cup for Hearts, the success came in spite of Vladimir Romanov’s meddling that season.
When Marius Zaliukas trod the same path to collect the same trophy in 2012, it represented an act of defiance by a squad who had gone unpaid for months.
Thankfully, the current Hearts captain Christophe Berra has no such issues as he prepares for today’s Scottish Cup final. That is down to the present owner, Ann Budge.
She took control after administration in 2014 and quite literally laid foundations for a stable future. Foundation of Hearts’ generating £1.4m a year from fans’ cash pledges and a shiny new main stand at Tynecastle are just two of her most notable accomplishments.
The security allows players to press for silverware, like that available this afternoon against Celtic. They know the diligence of those behind the scenes, even if there are some dissenting voices among supporters after a league campaign in which Hearts finished sixth.
“Obviously we don’t have all those off-field distractions there were before,” said Berra, an unused substitute in that 2006 final and a Wolves player at the time of the 2012 version. “The club is in a good place just now. The owner has come in, it was on its knees at one point and she took a risk. Owning a football team, unless you are in the English Premier League, it must be hard work with the revenue and stuff like that. She built it right up from the bottom and made it one of the forces in Scotland.
“Hopefully today will be the first step to some memorable years ahead.
“I had been at Hearts before I had seen the good times and the low times. A lot of these players are foreigners, they didn’t know a lot of that stuff.
“They obviously know how well the owner has done, but as soon as you cross that line you are going out to play for your pride, you want to do well for yourself, for your team. So we have all got the same goal – nobody wants to be failures.
“The second half of the season has been very inconsistent. You’ve always got something to prove. Even if you win the league then that is done. The next season, if you start poorly, you are going to get pelters, from the punters, from the media. Every year you have to prove yourself and Hearts is no different.”
Would he step aside and let 71-year-old Budge go up to collect the cup in the event of a Hearts victory? Romanov certainly would not have needed a second invitation. “I think I would rather do that myself,” laughed Berra.
“No, I don’t think so. But I am sure she would be proud as punch watching us lift the cup. I’m sure it would be one of her highlights as well.”
Lifting silverware was one of Berra’s burning ambitions when he rejoined his formative club from Ipswich Town two years ago. He has already visualised the moment in his mind. Probably more than once this week.
“It’s hard not to. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t think that, but it’s not my main focus. It would be great if it happened, the highlight of my career. Hopefully on the day we can do enough to win it and get a bit of luck as well.
“Obviously we are underdogs. Celtic have dominated the league for the last eight seasons. It is going to be a tough task but one we have risen to in the past. We know we have it in us.
“I have played in some big games for Scotland, one of the most memorable being here [at Hampden] against England. That was massive. Representing your country is the pinnacle of your career. But coming back to your home town and winning the cup would be incredible.
“It’s what I came back here to try and do. We have got the infrastructure at the club now so it is about doing it on the pitch.”
The central defender is 34. The last of his Scotland appearances came 18 months ago as he was continually overlooked by the recently-sacked Alex McLeish.
Steve Clarke’s international tenure may prove more fruitful but Berra knows his days of proper high-octane occasions are limited either way. He has to make this one count.
“I’m at the tail end of my career and time is running out, as they say. The chances to get your hands on a bit of silverware become fewer and fewer,” he acknowledged.
“Last year we had a young squad. This year we have managed to get to a semi-final and final, which I think is the first time in a while the club has done that. Hopefully we have the makings of a good team that can move on through the seasons ahead.
“The gaffer is signing some players up and hopefully we have the makings of the spine of a good team which we can move on through seasons to go.”
As a captain, he is not a screamer or bawler but will have his say. A few inspirational words will be uttered in the Hearts dressing room in the final moments before players step into the tunnel.
There will be nerves but no Churchilian speeches. “Not really. I’ll say my usual stuff when the ref calls us, probably repeat myself. The things we need to do throughout the game to perform and help us get a victory.”
Thereafter it is down to each individual to take responsibility. Celtic are chasing a unique Treble Treble and a ninth successive domestic trophy. Berra has faced some strong teams from Parkhead in his career but the current crop are comparable to any, making Hearts’ task all the tougher.
Should Berra and his colleagues complete what some believe is Mission Impossible, it will be a triumph to acclaim forever in Gorgie.
“It would be the highlight of most players’ careers but as soon as next season starts, as soon as we get a defeat, you’ll be right on us again,” said the player with a smrik.
“Sport in general changes week in, week out. If it does happen, we’ll enjoy it. Enjoy the good times and don’t get too down when things aren’t going too well.”