THIS was almost the Scottish Cup final that got away for Christophe Berra.
If not for the lamentable Covid crisis curtailing the 2019/20 campaign, the Hearts veteran would have been a solemn observer of the showpiece occasion after being frozen out by former manager Daniel Stendel.
He was stripped of the captaincy, farmed out on loan in January and contemplating never playing for his boyhood club again.
However, the landscape in December is very different from what it would have been in May.
Robbie Neilson, a former teammate of Berra’s who holds the experienced stopper in high regard, has succeeded Stendel at the helm and the ex-Scotland internationalist is not only back in the picture, but back in the starting line-up.
While silver linings from a global pandemic are scarce, from a purely footballing perspective, Berra has found one.
“It’s a strange situation, if there was no pandemic the old manager [Stendel] would have been here and I wouldn’t have been involved,” says Berra. “He came in and didn’t want me here. There’s no beating about the bush – that’s the way it was.
“It’s funny how things work out. I’m just glad to be back playing and back in the team.
“I’d been at clubs before where managers come and go and you’ve just got to turn up every day, train well and do your best.
“Anyone who knows me knows I won’t throw the toys out the pram and not try.
“I’ve got my own pride and high standards. It’s just my character and the way I work.”
There is no sense of bitterness regarding his treatment by Stendel, albeit Berra never refers to the German coach by name – simply ‘the old manager’.
Berra has been around the block many times, has played in the English Premier League and collected 41 caps. He is acutely aware of the brutal lows, and well as soaring highs a career in football can bring.
Berra adds: “Things happen for a reason and if you can’t handle that kind of thing you won’t make a career in football.
“But I’m fortunate enough to have had 18 years at a high level and I’m sure that says enough.”
Nevertheless Berra has been in combative mood since returning to the senior set-up with Hearts, evidently with a point to prove after being written off by many – including Stendel – earlier in 2020.
Age is just a number, the former Ipswich and Wolves defender contends, and any blips in his performances are no more down to his advancing years than they were a decade ago.
Berra continued: “I’m not daft. I know I’m getting older – I’m 36 in January.
“But if you ask the manager or anyone on the coaching staff, I’m still training well and the fitness tests show I’m still fit.
“There will come a time when I’m not performing to the required standard, but you can’t just say ‘he had a bad game because he’s getting old’. I had bad games when I was 18 and when I was 24! It happens.
“At the other end, a 20 year-old has a bad game and it’s ‘oh, he’s inexperienced’. It’s not any different.
“I can’t go forever – that’s life – but I’ve always looked after myself.”
If Berra is thankful for the unique timing of the 2019/20 showpiece, he believes the same goes for Hearts as a whole. The Jambos may have dropped down a division but he is adamant momentum and confidence are sky high at Tynecastle.
Celtic, meanwhile, have not had their troubles to seek after exiting the Betfred Cup Europa League and continuing to falter in the quest for 10 in a row.
The Hoops will be runaway favourite to triumph but the ingredients for an almighty upset appear to be present.
Berra added: “Winning breeds confidence and there’s a different feel around the place [Hearts].
“Don’t get me wrong, we know playing Celtic is a big step up in quality and, although they’ve been struggling, we’re no fools. They’ve got quality players there and can turn it on when they want to.
“They’re going for the quadruple treble so have a lot at stake as well – but also a lot of pressure on their shoulders. It’s a big opportunity for us.”