BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
AUSTIN MacPHEE has hailed Christophe Berra as the Premiership’s signing of the season and insists the Hearts captain is the best defender in Scotland.
The Jambos assistant head coach lavished praise on the 32-year-old, who was imperious in Sunday’s stunning 4-0 victory over Celtic and has helped the capital club rack up almost five hours of top-flight football without conceding.
Indeed, only the Hoops have a better defensive record than Hearts, who have shipped just 19 goals this term, despite Berra playing alongside a revolving cast of partners in the back-line.
MacPhee believes it is impossible to overstate the importance of Berra following his return to his boyhood heroes from Ipswich and is adamant the experienced stopper is the skipper Hearts have been sorely lacking in recent campaigns.
“If there has been a better signing in the summer window than Christophe Berra then I’m waiting to hear the name,” lauded MacPhee. “I don’t see a better defender in Scotland.
“Christophe’s standards are always very high and he leads through example and aggression. He has had a great career and, as an academy player, he can talk to young players about the route of his career and about 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 his ability by doing things properly and you can’t have too many players like Christophe or Aaron Hughes around to influence others.
“He is a very strong captain, which 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 – well, there is no chance of Christophe dropping out the team.”
As well his experience and temperament – he boasts 41 caps for Scotland and more than 300 appearances in English football with Wolves and Ipswich – Berra’s quality has shone through this term, while MacPhee reckons the Hearts stalwart would give Jamie Vardy a test in a footrace.
“Christophe marries being someone who knows where to be, has great aggression and good in the air,” continued MacPhee. “He is also really quick, really quick. He might be in his 30s, but his high-speed running in all the data is right up there with the fastest at the club.
“He is only about 0.5km off Jamie Vardy. Granted, it took Christophe three days to get to that!”
MacPhee, meanwhile, insists it will be impossible to replicate the pressing, breathless intensity of their triumph over Celtic in every match – as he told supporters during a celebratory trip to a Edinburgh bar with ‘the Gorgie Elvis’, Gary Locke.
Nevertheless, he believes a trip to McDiarmid Park, where they have not won on league business since 2010, is the ideal challenge after the ‘shot in the arm’ of defeating the previously-imperious champions.
“I had a couple of beers on Gorgie Road after the game with Gary Locke, which is like going out in Vegas with Elvis!” smiled MacPhee. “Supporters were coming up to us and saying ‘pick the same team, play the same way every game’.
“Well, to play like that, you need the other team to have the ball – you can’t press yourself! The way to break a press is to kick the ball over or around it and Celtic won’t do that.
“To replicate that exact performance would be difficult, it had energy and aggression but it was also very tactically worked and specific.
“But, now we play St Johnstone, where we haven’t won [in the league] since 2010 and it is the perfect game.
“We have won at Ibrox and Pittodrie in that time but we have not won at McDiarmid Park. Hopefully, the confidence and the focus from the Celtic game helps us get over that poor record we have in Perth.”