Hearts skipper Christophe Berra believes the decision to cancel the players’ Christmas party trip to Prague has been vindicated by Saturday’s 1-0 win over Hibs.
Berra was severely critical of himself and his team-mates following last month’s 5-0 defeat at Livingston. The players chose to abandon plans to fly to Prague the following day in order to concentrate on getting things right on the pitch.
Berra reckons supporters “would have taken” the humiliation at the Tony Macaroni Arena if it meant emerging victorious for the first time in four years at Easter Road. Hearts are now only six points from the top despite a run of poor results in November and December and are seven points clear of rivals Hibs.
“I’d have taken a win at Easter Road over a Christmas party any day of the week,” said Berra. “It’s paid dividends. The fans will go away happy and have a great New Year.”
“It [the Livingston defeat] was unacceptable but I’m sure [victory v Hibs] will have wiped that away from a lot of fans’ memories. I’m sure a lot of fans would have taken that and a win at Easter Road going into the winter break.”
As skipper on that now notorious night in West Lothian, it felt right that Berra should emerge as the most ferocious in his condemnation.
In its immediate aftermath the defender said he and his team-mates should all hang their heads in shame. It was a feeling, he stressed, he would never forget. Nothing could appease the hurt. But they would have to try to earn back the fans’ approval.
In addition, Berra led the move to cancel the players’ Czech Republic trip the following day for a pre-planned Christmas party. It’s slightly surprising to hear Berra suggest all this pain he conveyed so emotively was worth it for Saturday’s overdue victory at Easter Road.
Berra wasn’t necessarily saying that enduring one of Hearts’ worst defeats of modern times was a reasonable price to pay for the 1-0 win, secured courtesy of Olly Lee’s superb first-half strike.
But if the sting helped in any way to re-focus minds and help put Hearts back on track, then it is possible it can emerge as a positive experience in the long run.
Berra’s comments prove the extent to which Hearts relished victory at Easter Road. It had been more than four years since a Hearts team last won there, courtesy of a Callum Paterson double. No one from the present side was in the team then. Only Berra, in his first spell at the club, had previous experience of a win at the home of their fiercest rivals. This was nearly a decade ago, in a 2-0 Scottish Cup win.
No wonder he seemed to be the one celebrating most wildly at the end. The 33-year-old led the players towards the away end having been sure to first acknowledge those Hibs fans still left in the ground.
“In the warm-up I was getting a wee bit of stick but I’ll take it,” he revealed. “I can’t remember what they said but I just laugh at it sometimes and try to ignore it. But it’s normal and it’s what spurs you on as a player. You take the stick then you hope at the final whistle you have the three points.
“You just laugh it off and hope it comes back to haunt them,” he added. “That was the case on Saturday. These wins against your bitter rivals away from home don’t come around very often so when they do you need to cherish them. You could see how much it meant to the fans and I can assure them it meant just as much to the players.
“We’ve had to take the criticism on the chin recently,” he added. “We got it after Aberdeen, when we didn’t actually play that badly. But in football you need to bounce back. We were comfortable against Hamilton and it doesn’t matter how you win the derby.”
Now it’s all about looking to the future for Hearts. They hope they now have emerged from the sticky spell nearly all sides must endure at some point in a long campaign. Injured players have either returned or are due to return.
“We’ll have week off to recharge,” said Berra. “We have another boy [David Vanecek. pictured] coming in who will hopefully hit the ground running and we’ll have key players back fit again. We might strengthen as well. If you are going to be competing at the top end of the table you need everyone fit and competing for places in the squad.
“That’s something I’m sure the gaffer [Craig Levein] is looking at. It’s so tightly congested in the top six but if you want to be up there you need to be winning big games like the ones against Hibs.
“They’ve had some good results of late against the Old Firm and we were probably underdogs but we proved a few doubters wrong. That’s half the season gone now so we’ll have a week off then regroup. Hopefully we can pick up where we left off.”
Hearts return with a home Scottish Cup tie against Livingston before hosting Dundee in the league. Indeed, they remain at Tynecastle for their next outing after that against St Johnstone. It’s an opportunity to build on two successive wins combined with clean sheets with which they ended the year.
“There’s a long way to go and there’s so many teams who are holding their own, like Kilmarnock, Aberdeen, St Johnstone,” said Berra.
“You are not going to get easy games. You need to dig in to get results. It looks like it’s going to be a very competitive league.”