• Greg Bissett

Christophe Berra - Thank You

The below is adapted from an article published in the Hearts Match Programme on 15th February 2020 by Greg Bissett

Hearts are proud of their commitment and investment in youth development. Specifically in the Youth Academy at Riccarton. But why do Hearts place such focus and commit such resources to youth development? Amongst many reasons is the hope that we can develop a player of sufficient quality to be sold for a sizeable transfer fee, helping to fund and sustain the club's future. There is the hope we can develop a player of sufficient talent not just to break into the first team squad, but to enrich the first team with quality performances over a number of years. There is the hope that we can develop, not just the talent of the player, but also mould the character of the individual. Fostering lasting connection, commitment and loyalty to the club. Perhaps developing the sort of player with sufficient blend of talent and character to captain the club in the years to come.

In short, we do it in the hope of Christophe Berra.

No single player better embodies the benefit of Hearts youth investment than Berra. Breaking into the first team squad in 2005, Berra went on to play over 100 games for the club in his first spell. Quickly establishing the consistency, reliability and high quality of defensive performance for which he would become renowned. He would be appointed club captain at the age of just 22. In doing so he became the youngest captain in Scottish Premier League history. His leadership skills were tested by an apparent absence of cohesive management around him, as Vladimir Romanov's Hearts chopped and changed management at regular intervals. But Berra's performances barely wavered. Helping him gain a reputation as one of the most promising young players in the country.

In 2009 Wolves paid a transfer fee of almost £3m to take Berra from his boyhood club into the English Premiership. He would establish himself almost instantly in the self-proclaimed best league in the world. Playing over 150 games for Wolves in almost 4 seasons at Molineux. When Wolves were relegated in 2013 Mick McCarthy signed Berra for a second time, taking him to Ipswich Town to form the cornerstone of a new defence.

It was at Ipswich were he would arguably play his best football. Forming a formidable central defensive partnership with Tommy Smith, he quickly became a firm fans favourite. What the East Anglian Times described as "a season of warrior like performances" earned him the Supporters Player of the Year award in 2014/15, when Ipswich narrowly missed out on promotion to the Premier League. His consistency of performance meant he featured in the English Championship team of the season in back-to-back years. In all, Berra missed just 10 league games in 4 years at Ipswich. An astonishing feat of consistency and durability in what is a 46 game league season.

Eventually the draw of Edinburgh, of Hearts, and most importantly of his young family would prove too much for Berra. Ipswich reluctantly but admirably waived the option on the final year of his contract in 2017. Allowing Berra to make his desired return "home", both in a personal and footballing respect. Ipswich's loss was to be Hearts gain. With Christophe picking up where he left off. He was by a country mile Hearts most impressive player during the disappointing 2017/18 season. His performances at times almost single handily ensuring that Hearts league position remained respectable when some of the overall team performances were desperately short on quality and drive.

The arc of Berra's career perhaps changed early in the 2018/19 season when he suffered a horrendous hamstring injury in a home victory against Celtic. He sustained the injury in characteristic fashion. Straining every sinew to successfully block what appeared to be a certain Leigh Griffiths goal. With muscle separated from bone, the injury was initially expected to keep him out for over 6 months. The first serious injury of a career notable for its remarkable durability. With the team's form slumping dramatically in his absence, Berra returned in just 3 months. Despite his mobility being visibly diminished he continued to produce performances of great heart and substance. His seemingly magnetic forehead still meeting the ball in defensive situations with unfailing regularity.

As maroon blooded Edinburgh boy it is unsurprising that some of Christophe Berra's most memorable displays have come in Derby matches. He fully announced himself as a player of note in an unlikely 0-1 win at Easter road in 2007. Hibs, fresh from a League Cup Final triumph, were fully expected to take care of a somewhat ramshackle looking Hearts side, featuring the likes of Linas Pilibaitis and Kestutis Ivaskevicius in the starting line-up. Such forecasts did not reckon on a 22 year old Berra repelling waves of Hibs attacks for 90 solid minutes. He would make his mark at the other end in the closing moments, forcing an error from Hibs goalkeeper Andy Mcneil that would lead to Hearts winning goal from the swinging boot of his defensive partner Marius Zaliukas.

Despite being diminished by the aforementioned injury, Berra would repeat this trick some 12 years later. In the 2018/19 festive derby at Easter road he produced a memorable display of defensive stoicism and leadership. With Hearts ahead early through an Olly Lee wonder strike, it was over to Berra for a master class in though shalt not pass defending. Keeping Hibs at bay by sheer force of will, his man of the match display helped ensure a first Hearts victory at Easter Road in nearly 5 years. The 34 year old captain led that evening in the same way as the 22 year old captain did - through the strength of his example.

In the modern era just a tiny number of professional players can credibly claim to have given more to a club than they have taken out. Christophe Berra could claim such. When you factor in a multi-million pound transfer fee received, over 250 consistently high level performances across two spells of service, you would have to say he’d be right.

As a player and captain Christophe Berra has consistently answered the bell for Hearts. Doing so with professionalism and commitment, regardless of circumstance. Latterly he has played through injury and discomfort to his personal detriment, when most other professionals would not.

He deserves to be recognised as one of the best club servants of the last 20 years. The closing weeks of Berra's contract now brings the opportunity for his contribution to the club to be properly recognised by supporters. Even if the ongoing pandemic will prevent that tribute being paid in the usual way.

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