In his first stint at Hearts, Christophe Berra was not used to playing second fiddle to Hibernian, especially not in derbies.
But, back for his second spell at the Gorgie club, the captain heads into this evening’s capital head-to-head knowing that he and his colleagues have been charged with conjuring up victory in the tussle for the first time in nine meetings.
They have also been tasked with closing the gap in the Premiership standings, with their footballing neighbours currently one place above them with a five-point advantage.
“There’s a long way to go,” said Berra. “It was not that long ago we were 11 points behind them. But I don’t get too carried away when we are doing well and I don’t get too down when we are not. As a footballer you have to try to stay humble.
“The last time I was here we were the more dominant team in the derbies. It’s swings and roundabouts. It’s Hibs’ turn at the moment but it’s up to us as players for Hearts to turn it around.
“Neil Lennon inherited a team that was doing well and won the cup. It was a good, balanced squad and he has added quality to it. He’s progressed them.
“But our manager [Craig Levein] is an experienced manager who knows what the derby is all about. He’s managed in these games, he’s played in them and over the piece he has a great record in them. He will be looking to continue that and turn it round to the maroon side of Edinburgh.”
History favours Hearts in this fixture. The Tynecastle side have amassed 138 triumphs, compared to Hibernian’s 83, while there have been 93 draws. But that stands for little. It is about belief, ability and a determination to win every ball, as Berra knows very well.
“You have to win your individual battles and show no fear and try to get the better of your opponent. If you do that in eight, nine or ten positions across the pitch you are more than likely going to win the game. It’s about giving your all. It’s not always going to be pretty. It will be hell for leather at times. But they will be wanting to get in our faces and make it difficult for us too.
“Some of the young boys are quite slight and going up against John McGinn, John is a big strong boy. There’s a lot of progressing for the young players to do but this will be valuable experience for them.”
If they are chosen to play. While young Harry Cochrane will be an enforced absentee following his dismissal at Perth on Saturday, there will be others in the reckoning, but Levein is hoping that if Jamie Walker and Arnaud Djoum could return as they seek to demonstrate the improvements that have been made since Hibs bettered them in the first meeting of the season.
That went Hibs’ way courtesy of an early Simon Murray goal. But the fact they could not add to that for the rest of the match was a measure of how miserly Hearts defence has become under the stewardship of Berra. Only Celtic have bettered them in that department and clean sheets in five of the last six games will have bolstered belief in that area of the pitch.
There is certainly improved confidence going into the match thanks to an unbeaten run of seven games that started when they returned to their newly redeveloped ground in the middle of last month. The highlight so far was undoubtedly the defeat of Celtic, which had Tynecastle rocking and a similar atmosphere can be expected if Hearts get off to a flier against their main foes tonight.
“It will be different at Tynecastle on a tighter pitch and in front of our home fans,” Berra added. “If we can recreate the atmosphere against Celtic last Sunday we have a good chance. But we know it will be difficult. Hibs have had a good season and they have a settled team. You could probably name eight, nine or ten of their starting XI now. But we are still missing key players and we are chopping and changing. But it’s no excuse. It’s a derby and if we perform like we have in recent weeks we can do well.
“We have beaten the Old Firm in the past but not like that. We deserved to win and it was comfortable in the end. To win 4-0 against Celtic happens rarely. People might expect more now but we’ve got young players in our team and there will be inconsistency.
“There will be ups and downs but we will have to deal with that. And it will be up to the senior players to help the younger ones through it.
“Hibs will be a challenge. They have good players. John McGinn is key and instrumental in the way Hibs play. But, we know their strengths and I’m sure we will be ready.”