Austin MacPhee has hailed Christophe Berra as the kind of captain Hearts have been lacking and said that, if there was a better summer signing, he doesn’t know of it.
While youthful promise has dominated the headlines in recent days, following the impact of 16 years olds Anthony McDonald and Harry Cochrane, Hearts assistant coach MacPhee places huge emphasis on the part played by experienced pros.
He said: “The young players’ performances have been great but I think they have overshadowed the displays of Jon McLaughlin, a first clean sheet against Celtic in 69 games, Michael Smith outstanding at centre-back and, if there has been a better signing in the summer window than Christophe Berra, then I’m waiting to hear the name.
“Don Cowie did [ran] over 12 kilometres – for a player who is 34, unbelievable. And Kyle Lafferty put in the type of performance we need him to put in all the time, not just against Celtic in a big game. We need that from him on a wet Wednesday in Dingwall when his toes are cold. Of course the academy are proud, but for the club as a whole, it’s a good place to be.”
As the club’s first signing of the close season, Berra was always considered a key acquisition, and the man who captained the Gorgie outfit earlier in his career before earning a move south, has helped them establish a miserly reputation in defence. With just 19 goals conceded in their 19 Premiership games so far, they trail only Celtic in that department. MacPhee associates that success with the influence and standards set by the Scotland international.
MacPhee added: “He is also a very strong captain. Hearts have lacked a captain in recent years. Robbie [Neilson] would say that as well because all the captains have ended up dropping out the team. [Alim] Ozturk dropped out the team, [Perry] Kitchen dropped out the team but there is no chance of Christophe dropping out the team! And becoming a regular in the Scotland team has also helped him. Clearly Gordon Strachan thought Christophe was at a level where he could rely on him all the time.
“His standards are always very high and he is a captain who leads through example and aggression and he has had a great career. He is an academy player as well and there are different things about him that mean he can talk to young players about the route of his career, when he has made the right decision to go wherever he has gone. You could look back over his career and say that he has maximised what he has got by doing things properly and you can’t have too many players like Christophe or Aaron Hughes around to influence [others].”
Danny Wilson enjoyed a spell as captain, lifting the Championship trophy and others, such as Marius Zaliukas, have earned a place in the club’s history books at the helm of headline-grabbing teams but, since Steven Pressley, Hearts have struggled to find a talismanic and driven leader, who also has a deep understanding of the club and its demands.
“He doesn’t necessarily think less of himself,” said MacPhee about Berra, “and he has confidence, but he is at a stage in his career where he can think about himself less. You can put your team-mates first while still taking care of your own thing. I can’t speak highly enough of him.
“He is also really, really quick. He is over 30 but his high speed running in all the data is right up there with the fastest at the club. He is only about 0.5 off Jamie Vardy which shows he is really quick.
“I looked at it one day and saw Christophe had clocked 34.3kph, and Jamie Vardy’s top speed was 34.8kph. So, if you can marry someone who knows where to be, has great aggression, is good in the air, is really quick and can organise, then I don’t see a better defender in Scotland just now and neither could Gordon Strachan, as the other centre half wasn’t playing in Scotland.”
But while the players are now beginning to hit the standards set by the captain and are earning points, tomorrow’s match against St Johnstone, will be tough. MacPhee is aware of the demands placed on the team by Hearts fans but warned that every game is different.
“I had a couple of beers on Gorgie Road after [Sunday’s] game with Gary Locke, which is like going out in Vegas with Elvis! Supporters were coming up to us and saying ‘pick the same team, play the same way every game’. But, to play like that, you need the other team to have the ball – you can’t press yourself!”
The work ethic and bravery on the ball can be replicated, though. Hearts just need to get the tactics right.
“Now we play St Johnstone, where we haven’t won [in the league] since 2010. You can’t contrast playing Celtic on TV, in front of 20,000 fans, with McDiarmid as it is a different sporting event. The motivation comes from within and you can’t press them because they play more direct.
“Tommy [Wright] has been really, really successful. The record speaks for itself. We’ve not won there in nine games, not in seven years. We’ve won at Ibrox and Pittodrie in that time but not at McDiarmid. Hopefully the confidence and focus from the Celtic game helps us get over the poor record we have in Perth.”