THERE is no chance of Christophe Berra forgetting Scotland’s last visit to Norway, where they will play a friendly in two days’ time.
Their last visit to that nation was for a World Cup qualifier in August 2009, a grim night that ended with a 4-0 defeat and proved one of those anything-that-could-go-wrong-did-go-wrong evenings for Berra. Then the central defender had one start and three substitute appearances for the national side. The outing from the bench that George Burley afforded him as his fifth cap proved a curse more than a blessing.
“Gary Caldwell got sent off and from the free-kick he gave away we went 1-0 down, and then I was sent on [in place of Ross McCormack], just before it went 2-0. With about 15 minutes to go I pulled a hamstring and that meant I missed the first five games of my first year with Wolves in the Premier League. It wasn’t a good memory,” he recalls ruefully. “I’ve grown from that. It was the start of a long journey and made me stronger.”
Berra now boasts 27 caps. The last of those came in Gordon Strachan’s first game in charge, the 1-0 friendly win over Estonia in February. Then the player was a Scotland first-pick, having featured in 17 of their 18 previous internationals. A run that came to a shuddering halt when his decision not to sign a new deal with a Wolves side then sliding down to England’s third tier meant it required a summer move to Ipswich Town for him to begin earning the game time that has allowed him to come on to Strachan’s radar once more.
In the intervening period, however, Russell Martin and Grant Hanley have become the recognised centre-back pairing for the national side. Berra is simply relieved that he has a club platform that allows him to make a challenge for further international recognition.
“I didn’t sign until two or three weeks before the season started so I was playing catch up then. Because they had such a good end to the season the manager [Mick McCarthy] stuck by the same team for four or five games. After that I got in and I’ve obviously been playing ever since. It’s just good to get back playing regularly and getting back to the consistency and form I’ve showed in the past.
“I had other options earlier, but I didn’t want to commit. I’ve worked with him before, a couple of times, and the one thing he is is very honest and as a footballer you appreciate that. He tells you, straight down the middle, what he thinks. There have been other managers in the past that didn’t always tell you the truth. The one thing you expect out of your manager is to be straight down the middle and tell you if you are right or wrong.”
Berra refuses to be bitter about the sorry end to his time at Molineux, the 28-year-old joining the Midlands club from Hearts at the close of the January transfer window in 2009. “Things went on and obviously my contract was ending and I didn’t really want to extend it. I had been there four-and-a-half years and wanted a fresh challenge. It was a good four-and-a-half years, great memories, but I wanted to go somewhere else and try something different. The club, on their behalf, had to look to the future. From playing, practically the whole season, and suddenly not even being on the bench for the last 16 games, that was strange. I wasn’t frozen out or anything like that, it was just on match days I wasn’t involved in the 18 stripped, but would travel and do the running after the game. It was difficult. You get frustrated, but I knew at the end of the season I was going to be somewhere else. All I can say is that I enjoyed it, but was a wee bit disappointed with the way it ended. That’s football. There is no sour grapes.”
Berra was talked about as one of those possible summer Rangers captures that would be paid handsomely to help the club up the divisions. His desire to find a home he felt would be compatible with international selection meant he could not be persuaded to return north by Ally McCoist.
“He phoned me a couple of times and I had a good chat, but at the moment in my career I just wanted to stay in England. I listened to what he said, and had a great chat. I respect Rangers, obviously they are a massive club but for my international career – I know Lee Wallace is here – I just wanted to stay in England and try to get back to the Premier League.”
Now that would be a Scotland calling card.