Christophe Berra opens up on career - Stendel 'threat' and bizarre coaching, Hearts and Neilson, Aberdeen abuse, regrets and good times
It is fair to say that Christophe Berra knew his relationship with Daniel Stendel was doomed from the moment the Hearts manager tried to teach him how to head a ball.
Things would get much worse, such as when Berra was informed that he would now be training with the under-18s when he arrived back in after his wedding. "I had been given a heads up that this was happening," he says. "Someone who was honest and trustworthy and who I had a good relationship with."
Eventually he heard from Stendel himself that he was free to find a new club. "He did tell me but not of his own accord – he was advised to tell me face to face, I had wanted to see him. We had a few words. Nothing was said out of turn." Berra trained with his usual commitment with the under-18s.
"If you are honest with people, you can accept it,” the 37-year-old says. “But it wasn’t honest.”
Berra was bombed out after a defeat to Hibs at Tynecastle. He was club captain and had 18 months left of his contract. “There was no method behind the madness other than he felt I was a threat,” says Berra.
His wedding to Carla, at the Balmoral hotel, was a stylish, lavish affair. If the happy couple were to decide to renew their marriage vows sometime in the future, there would be no need to heavily alter the invite list. His friends have remained loyal and supportive.
Ann Budge, the club owner, was not implicated in the decision to exile him. “Half the team were there (at the wedding),” recalls Berra. “Ann was oblivious to it. I have the highest respect for Ann. I love Hearts, they played the biggest part of my career. It was just certain individuals.”
Berra remains incredulous. “He (Stendel) actually tried to tell me how to head a ball!” he exclaims. “If anyone knows me, that’s my biggest attribute. I won the most percentage of headers in the league for years.”
Stendel was a half-decent striker in his day, but Berra cried foul when the German tried to demonstrate how his body position was all wrong when he headed the ball. “I am all for learning but that’s my main attribute!” he exclaims. “It is like telling Harry Kane how to finish.”
Latterly of Raith Rovers, Berra is reflecting on his career, both the good and bad times, and there were far more of the former, in a café in Edinburgh's southside.
It’s 11am. About the time he should have been finishing off a training session in Kirkcaldy rather than sipping a cappuccino in the heart of festival city. He might well have been preparing for yesterday’s trip to Hamilton Accies had manager Ian Murray not given him the green light to stop. The manner of Berra's retirement sums up both the player and man.
He would still be playing if Raith desperately needed him. He confided in Murray that he wasn’t feeling as motivated when he clocked on for training on the eve of his 20th season in senior football. He realised something had changed. He wasn't quite as sharp when turning and checking. For the first time, he was finding it all a bit of a struggle.
Quitting became an ever-firmer intention though only if Raith had adequate cover in the middle of defence. That wasn't the case for a few weeks, hence his Premier Sports Cup appearances against Peterhead, Stirling Albion, Dumbarton – including a goal in the penalty shootout – and Aberdeen.
“We played Dumbarton on a Tuesday night in the cup,” Berra explains. “The gaffer said to me: ‘do you want to play? You don’t have to, it’s not a problem’. I said: ‘no, I will play’.
“I had a really good game, I thought I could play this level for umpteen years. But I knew three or four weeks down the line, if we got beat and I had a rubbish game, I would be like: ‘what am I doing?’”
Then came the trip to Aberdeen. “I didn’t have a particularly bad game or a particularly good game. But the gaffer needed me to play that one and then after that he was like, ‘fine, you should do what you need to do’. I knew I would be there as long as I was needed, albeit it was Aberdeen in the cup and we were beaten 3-0. They were expected to win, we did our best. And that was it.”
An announcement 48 hours later confirmed his retirement "with immediate effect". No lap of honour, no throwing his shirt into the crowd. Just a heap of abuse though he had learned to expect that over the years at Pittodrie.
“Obviously I go to Easter Road and get stick,” he says. “But for some reason I would always get a bit of stick from the Aberdeen fans. I always think they must rate me as a player. It is not as if I wind them up. I just get on with my game.”
Is he missing it in these first few weeks on Civvy Street? It doesn’t sound like he is. “I know there is a lot of pressure on other positions too but defenders, they don’t go into games relaxed,” he says. “It’s more like: ‘I can’t make a mistake, I need to win my headers, win my tackles’. You can play great for 90 minutes and then in the 91st minute you can slip and give a goal away.”
There’s a measure of relief in stepping away from such intensity. But he isn’t planning to relax for too long.
Berra has an appetite for work perhaps inherited from his father, Christian, who arrived in Scotland from France, where he grew up near the Swiss Border, and established a long-running bakery firm – “you’ve probably eaten one of their baguettes at some point,” he says – after originally waiting tables while learning English. One post-retirement task Berra might set himself is learning French.
“I have tried to learn in the past, I probably will again,” he says. “It’s not as easy as you think it might be. That’s a regret.”
As for now, he’s helping renovate the new house he shares with Carla and their 18-months-old daughter, Olivia. But that will occupy him only so long and he has energy bills to pay like everyone else. Armed with all his badges except Pro-Licence, which he expects to complete imminently, Berra is prepared to start coaching on the bottom rung.
“I will need to work,” he says. “I need routine in my life and I want to coach and be a manager.
“It’s like when I came back up (from England). I never re-signed for Hearts for money. I was never one of the highest paid players in a million years. I was happy where I was. I just wanted to come back and play football.
“I had an option for another year at Ipswich and could have stayed there and trebled my money. I just wanted to come home. I had an aspiration to finish my career at Hearts. OK, that didn’t happen …”
If you want to give God a laugh, tell Him your plans. One charge can’t be pinned on Stendel. He wasn’t the one who ended Berra’s Hearts career. As the defender suspected would be the case, he outlasted the German, returning to the club after a successful, unbeaten loan spell wearing – somewhat incongruously – the No 7 shirt at Dundee.
But there was still no happy ending to life at Tynecastle after 263 games. Remarkably when one considers Hearts were in the second tier at the time, Berra finished on the losing side in four of his last five appearances for the club, including a Scottish Cup tie at Brora Rangers. “It didn’t end the way I wanted it to end,” he says, with gross understatement.
“What triggered it is I signed a pre-contract. I spoke to the manager (Robbie Neilson) in January and wanted to know what was happening because I was out of contract. He told me he wouldn’t be offering me another one. Fine. I need to look after myself but I was still professional – I was not club captain but I acted like one. If you are not getting a new contract then you look somewhere else.
“We were going to win the league, let’s be honest. But I did not play. The manager will have his reasons, which is fine. We move on.”
Hearts went up as expected but much to his disappointment Berra was not included in the title celebrations. He remained in the Championship with Raith and enjoyed his stay there for the most part, playing 38 times last season. It helps take his tally to over 600 matches – including 41 caps for Scotland and four goals and nearly 100 games in the English Premier League. Prior to their current stay in the division, Berra was second behind Matt Jarvis when it came to English top-flight appearances for Wolves since the millennium.
“We managed to beat all the big teams, we beat Man City, Man United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham – the only team we didn’t beat was Arsenal, the best we got was a draw against them,” he says. “On the other side we got humped a few times too.”
He won player of the year at Ipswich in the 2013-14 season, the first Scot to do so since John Wark. Mick McCarthy, who signed him for Wolves and Ipswich, said he would trust Berra with his life. He, in turn, praises McCarthy, highlighting his honesty – a quality much valued by Berra. He hasn’t always felt it was demonstrated in his dealings in football.
There is much to be proud of in a career that got off to a relatively late start. He didn’t begin playing boys’ club football until he was 12-years-old.
Six years later Craig Levein handed him his Hearts debut against Dundee United. But John McGlynn, his last but one manager at Raith, was his first coach as a professional. It didn’t quite come full circle. In his mind’s eye, he had perhaps envisaged accepting the deserved applause of 16,000 Hearts fans as he circled Tynecastle one last time at the end of his career.
He knows football isn’t always a story in a book. Fairytales turn sour, honeymoons are interrupted. Scottish Cup finals are lost.
Hearts were beaten by Celtic in both finals in which he featured – he regrets not taking a penalty in 2020’s shootout – and he was on the bench for the 2006 success against Gretna.
Berra returned to Tynecastle for Hearts’ 4-1 win over Dundee United last weekend. Just another face in the crowd already.
“It was fine,” he says. “I played over 250 games and made them £2.5m. Yes, some people might say ‘he was rubbish’. But I never once disrespected the club. I never robbed them of money.
“The majority of Hearts fans respect me and think I did well for them,” he continues. “But then I did do well!”
Berra’s status as a Gorgie great shouldn’t even be up for debate. “Sometimes you don’t rate yourself as much but saying goodbye to the lads at Raith it really felt like they were gutted to see me go, the young boys too,” he says. “I was a bit of a mentor and helped them as much as I could.
"There were a few tears, a few teary moments with my wife as well. That’s your football career done. We can all be quite soft in that situation, I suppose, when saying goodbye.”
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