EVEN for a man whose current club stand on the brink of Premier League football, there is a certain enthusiasm obvious in Christophe Berra’s voice when discussing Hearts’ fortunes this season. Sure, the centre-back is excited about life at high-flying Ipswich Town, but it is clear that the Tynecastle club have one very keen Suffolk-based observer.
“It’s great, isn’t it?” says Berra, referring to the emphatic recovery Hearts have made since suffering relegation, as well as off-the-field crisis, last year.
“They’re not just having a great season, but playing attractive football as well and are doing so with a clear philosophy. It’s great to see the club bouncing back so well.”
Indeed, Hearts have recovered impressively, holding a 13-point lead over Rangers at the top of the Scottish Championship, with Robbie Neilson’s side yet to suffer a league defeat. Their title charge shows no sign of faltering.
“I said to my dad before, when they went down, that there was going to be a lot more pressure on them in the Championship, given that they are such a big club,” Berra continues. “But they’ve handled that really well and taken it in their stride.”
It is six years since Berra left Tynecastle for Wolves, swapping the Scottish Premier League for the shimmering glitz of the English top flight, in which time the defender has suffered two relegations, exile from the Molineux club’s first team and been released as a free agent. And all that after captaining Hearts – then owned by Vladimir Romanov, now wanted for alleged misappropriation and embezzlement in Lithuania – during the most erratic period in the club’s history.
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“Of course, there were a couple issues towards the end,” admits Berra – something of an understatement perhaps, given that the club’s very existence was under severe threat. “Not getting paid on time was obviously one of them, so you could see that something was coming. But there were also a lot of good memories too. Winning the Scottish Cup, finishing second, playing in the Europa League, Champions League qualifiers, so people shouldn’t forget what [Romanov] did for the club.
“He brought in a lot of big players and really had the club flying for a while. So, looking back, it was kind of 50/50, as there were a lot of hard times as well as good times, so I think the fans should remember that when looking back at when Romanov was at the club.”
Few roots to the previous regime remain at Tynecastle, with chairwoman Ann Budge overseeing a restoration of the club in the boardroom and on the pitch.
Yet Craig Levein offers something of a throwback to a time before relegation, point deductions and fan ownership at Hearts in his role as director of football at the club.
“Craig has obviously been a major factor in how well they have done this season,” says Berra, who played under Levein at club and international level. “He’s a big figurehead for the club to have and had a very successful period at Hearts in the past, and it seems like he and Robbie work very well. He’s very good at bringing young players through and you can see the benefit of that at Hearts already.”
Berra understandably holds Levein in high regard, given that the defender was brought through as a teenager at Hearts and established in the Scotland first team by the coach. Of course, Levein’s reign as national team coach ended in derision, with Gordon Strachan since revitalising the Scotland side.
“I think [Levein] was actually quite unlucky,” Berra continues. “There were a couple games where some bad decisions cost us. But he’s showing with Hearts just how valuable he can be in the game.”
Under Strachan, Berra has lost his first-team place in the Scotland back four, with Grant Hanley and Russell Martin forming a partnership in central defence. “When I was at Wolves, I didn’t play 15 or 16 games for certain reasons and I lost my place in the side,” Berra explains. “Then I struggled to find a club straight away in the summer, so, by the time I was playing first-team football again, [Hanley and Martin] had the positions joined up. There’s not much I can do about that. I can try and force my way in through my club form, but even that might not be enough.”
Ipswich fell out of the Championship’s top two with a 1-0 defeat by Derby County on Saturday, but Mick McCarthy’s side still find themselves in position for a tilt at promotion to the Premier League. Their success has coincided with Berra’s resurgence, with George Burley recently labelling him as one of the Championship’s best defenders. As the centre-back openly states, England is where football provides its toughest test, making or breaking careers.
Now Alex Neil has joined the list of Scottish exports to make the move south of the Border, the 33-year-old swapping Hamilton for Norwich City last week.
“They’ve got one of, if not the strongest squad in the Championship,” explains Berra, underlining Ipswich’s rivalry with the Canaries. “So, although they’re still in a decent position, they should be doing better than they are at the moment. There’s massive expectations on a club that comes down to go straight back up, but it’s not easy. I experienced that at Wolves.
“I think a lot of people look up to Scotland for managers because we’ve always produced good young managers and Alex Neil seems to be the next one. Scottish football isn’t what it used to be. I’ve come down and done pretty well. But I’ll always see home as Edinburgh and I hope to move back there when I retire or later in my career, in three years, four years, five years. Who knows.”
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