Ex-Hearts star Berra just busy loving the dream

AT this time last year, Christophe Berra was in between what would prove to be his final two games for Hearts – away to Kilmarnock and then at home to Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

It says much about the remarkable transition in his life over the past 11-and-a-half months, therefore, that his last two matches for Wolverhampton Wanderers came against the might of Liverpool and Manchester City.

As a man once accused by former Hibs manager Mixu Paatelainen of "leaping like a brown trout", however, the big defender feels anything but a fish out of water in the self-proclaimed greatest league in the world.

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When Wolves, whom he joined from Hearts at the end of January last year, sealed promotion from the Championship to the English Premier League last spring, Berra knew he would effectively be challenged to sink or swim in waters which have been relatively unchartered so far by Edinburgh boys. The scale of the task facing the 24-year-old was highlighted by the fact Craig Gordon, Darren Fletcher and Garry O'Connor were the only other players from Scotland's capital city who had earned the right to start the season in the league where, as Berra himself says, "every player wants to be playing."

As he approaches the end of his first year in the Black Country and, with his first half-season in the English top flight now complete, the Evening News headed for Molineux to find out how he's coped with the challenge so far. The overriding feeling upon meeting the former Tynecastle skipper is that he now considers himself a fully-fledged Premier League player whose rightful place is out on a pitch trying to subdue the illustrious likes of Nicolas Anelka, Carlos Tevez and Jermain Defoe. Such self-belief comes from the fact he has started 16 consecutive games (with the exception of last month's away game at Manchester United where manager Mick McCarthy controversially rested all his first-choice outfield players) and played his part in several fine Wolves performances before succumbing to concussion in the aforementioned clash with Man City at the end of December.

"It's been a real step up for me but I feel I've adapted really well," he says. "No disrespect to Scottish football, but it's a lot better down here. You're playing against a much higher standard of player every week. Every team has real quality players who can punish you. I've been playing in big stadiums against some of the best teams in the world but I feel I've coped really well and I'm improving all the time.

"I played 16 games in a row and in the last five I played, we won three and kept a clean sheet against Liverpool till we had a man sent off, and then I got taken off at half-time against Man City with a head injury. It's impossible not to improve when you come down here."

He struggles when asked to name his toughest opponent so far because there are so many formidable talents to choose from. "Off the top of my head, I'd probably say Tevez and Anelka."

However, he's more sure of himself when asked to pinpoint his most satisfying match in the Premier League. "It has to be our 1-0 win at Tottenham last month," he says. "Robbie Keane and Jermain Defoe started and Peter Crouch came on but we defended really well. Both as a team performance and individually that was my best one so far."

While he is undoubtedly revelling in the company of some of the world's best players, the wind has been removed from his sails somewhat by the fact he wasn't restored to the starting line-up for last weekend's visit of fellow relegation battlers Wigan Athletic. Fit again after his head knock, Berra expected to be reunited with Jody Craddock, his trusty central defensive sidekick, for the visit of Gary Caldwell and Co. However, he was left a tad bemused when McCarthy listed him among the substitutes as he opted to stick with the same defence that had kept a clean sheet against Tranmere Rovers in the FA Cup while Berra was out injured.

"It was very disappointing because I've been playing well," he continues. "I feel it was a bit harsh for me to be on the bench, but it's the manager's decision so I've just got to bounce back and be ready when I'm called upon. It's nothing to do with my form because I've been playing really well. I feel I've been really consistent."

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If Saturday's game is anything to go by, it should only prove to be a minor blip for the Scot. In his absence, Wolves lost 2-0 with those in the backline particularly culpable. Richard Stearman was sent off for a piece of stupidity and as a result will be due a suspension, while Michael Mancienne, the on-loan Chelsea youngster, was at fault for the concession of the second goal. Both can consider their places to be in doubt for this weekend's FA Cup clash at home to Crystal Palace and, as a result, Berra should find a way back in.

Nevertheless, the very fact that he is genuinely perturbed at being left out for any match is evidence enough of Berra's soaring confidence. Such bullish talk will be music to the ears of Craig Levein, the new Scotland manager, as he ponders his first squad, which is due to be named next month. With Stephen McManus out of sorts, David Weir getting on a bit, and the Caldwell brothers still tarnished by the Norway debacle, the two in-form Scottish defenders at present appear to be Berra and his old Tynecastle colleague Andy Webster. Both were given their Hearts debuts by Levein, but Berra is taking nothing for granted on that front. "It's nice to have Craig as the Scotland manager because he gave me my breakthrough at Hearts, but I don't think it'll make a big difference to whether I get picked or not. It's entirely down to how I perform for my club, so if I can keep on playing well for Wolves it can only enhance my chances."

On the subject of international football, Berra believes Levein will benefit from the fact that the poor financial state of Scottish football is likely to see more of the SPL's best players follow his lead by moving down south to better themselves. "I'm sure Craig will be happy at the fact there's now quite a few Scots playing in the Premier League down here," he says. "It can only be good for the national team. You only have to look at our game against Wigan at the weekend, where James McCarthy and Gary Caldwell both more than held their own to see that there are some decent players coming from the SPL.

"But right now, in Scotland, all the teams are bringing through their own youngsters and I think that's something they've got to concentrate on because the money's all down here. Scottish football's got talent, but it definitely needs an injection of money. Until that happens and the league gets sorted out, I'm sure you'll see a lot more Scottish players move to England where they will feel they can improve themselves."

For all that moving to the Midlands has provided him with an incredible opportunity to enhance his career, Berra admits he still pines for Edinburgh. "I stay in Sutton Coldfield, five miles from Birmingham and about 20 miles from Wolverhampton. It's a nice little town with some nice houses – quite a few of the Wolves boys stay there. But if I'm off on Wednesday, I'll sometimes fly up to Edinburgh on the Tuesday afternoon after training and then fly back down on the Wednesday night. I'm an Edinburgh lad and you certainly don't appreciate how nice a city it is until you leave.

"There's no place like home, I miss my friends and family but I've settled well down here. I want to play football at the highest standard possible and sometimes you've got to make sacrifices."

And what of his old club? Does he still keep tabs on Hearts' progress? "I keep in touch with a few of the boys up there like Lee Wallace and Jason Thomson.I owe the club and the coaches there a lot – if it wasn't for Hearts I wouldn't be where I am now. I always check the results and see who's scored, and I'll continue to do that. When I was a sub on Saturday I even nipped in at half-time to check what the score was against St Mirren."