Tynecastle stalwart Christophe Berra reflects on the butterflies before his first Hearts start – as he prepares to make appearance 200

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BY ALAN TEMPLE – CCP_Sport

AS CHRISTOPHE BERRA prepares to pull on a Hearts jersey for the 200th time tonight, the Tynecastle stalwart can still remember the butterflies he endured prior to his first start for his boyhood heroes.

It was March 7, 2004 and illness had ruled club captain Steven Pressley out of their SPL fixture against Kilmarnock. However, Berra was the one with the churning stomach when Craig Levein gave him the nod on the morning of the game.

Berra, 19 years of age at the time, had two substitute appearances – totalling 15 minutes – under his belt and was already being quietly tipped for great things behind the scenes. This was his acid test.

(Pic: Hearts TV)

“There was still a lovely grass pitch at Rugby Park. That’s how long ago it was,” he smiles.

Lining up alongside estimable former Jambos Kevin McKenna, Robbie Neilson, Alan Maybury and Andy Webster – a goalscorer on the day – in a formidable back-line, Berra did not look out of place as he helped the capital club to a 1-1 draw.

“I didn’t know I was approaching that milestone [200th game] until the other day,” revealed Berra. “I’m proud to have represented the club for so many games, especially when I was away for eight-and-a-half years.

“When you are just starting out, you never really think about landmarks like that. You are just concentrating on playing every game and doing well.

“I still remember my first start. It came when Steven Pressley was ill and I remember being told on the morning of the match that I was playing. I was nervous, which is only natural.

“Thankfully, I didn’t get told until the day of the game. It was probably a benefit that I didn’t find out the night before – as a defender, you don’t want to obsess all night about making a mistake!

“The gaffer here [Levein] was the manager back then as well, so he would have been the one that told me on the morning of the game. He was an important figure when I was coming through the youth team and had a huge part in me playing at Hearts and becoming the defender I am.

“I learned a lot back in those days, just from training and getting advice from the guys that were here at that time like Pressley and Webster. I owe a lot to them and it gave me a platform to go on in my career.”

It would be the start of a beautiful marriage.

(Pic: HeartsTV)

Berra went on to make 146 appearances in his first spell in Gorgie, becoming club captain at the age of 22 and belying his youth to emerge as a rock of stability during some of the more tumultuous moments of Vladimir Romanov’s reign.

His talent was never going to go unrecognised and Berra went on to excel south of the border with Wolves and Ipswich, enjoying more than 300 outings in the unforgiving battlefields of the English game.

Having returned to his first club in the summer of 2017, Berra’s influence on and off the pitch has been notable. He has been a mainstay on the pitch and is a constant source of motivation and inspiration behind the scenes.

And, as he toasts a significant milestone against Livingston this evening, it seems inevitable that he will end his career at Hearts.

Given his miraculous return to fitness a month ahead of schedule from a hamstring tear, you would not bet against him hitting the 300-mark before then.

“I don’t want to tempt fate – let’s try to get to 250 first,” he laughed. “I’ve always been fit and looked after myself so I don’t see why not.

“It’s something that would be great but it’s a long way away.

“I come from Edinburgh, it’s a wonderful city to live in and it’s special that there is a massive club in it where I have started my career – and will hopefully finish it.”

However, if any side are capable of spoiling the party for Berra, it is Gary Holt’s stubborn, efficient Livingston side, who have turned the Tony Macaroni Arena into a fortress upon their return to the top-flight.

Only Celtic have a better home record than the Lions this season, with victories over Rangers, Hibs and a draw against the Hoops already registered in West Lothian.

“We know how tough it will be, one of the hardest places to go in the league,” added Berra. “Livingston have had an incredible season so far, they are hard to beat, don’t concede many goals and have a habit of nicking them as well. So we know we will need to go there and give 110 per cent.

“They drew with Celtic and beat Rangers and Hibs so we’re going to have to defend for our lives. We will go there and respect Livingston but not fear them.”

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