Paul Berry feature: Things could only get Berra
Christophe Berra knows all about the ‘whirlwind’ nature of the transfer window.
As Wolves fans count down the days to this summer’s deadline, wondering just what could be in store over the next fortnight, Berra has memories of the weekend 13-and-a-half years ago when he made his own last gap switch to Molineux, from Heart of Midlothian.
“I remember getting a phone call from my agent on the Friday, the day before we had a game at Hamilton,” Berra recalls.
“He told me a bid from Wolves had been accepted, and that I had to fly down on the Saturday morning.
“I was at Edinburgh Airport, just before going through security, and Hearts owner Vladimir Romanov actually met me to wish me all the best and say I would always be welcome back any time, before getting on the plane and heading to Wolves.
“I remember watching the game against Watford on the Saturday afternoon, then doing my medical afterwards, so it was a long night!
“I trained with the team on the Sunday and the deal went through and that was it, the start of my Wolves career – it was all a bit of a whirlwind to be honest.”
Berra must have brought some of the stereotypical Scottish weather on the plane with him as heavy snow greeted the day of his announcement as a Wolves player, before he was then struck down by a sickness bug which meant he missed the midweek draw with Norwich and his debut came in a 2-1 defeat, on Mick McCarthy’s 50th birthday, at Coventry.
Although he played well in his next game, at Burnley, Wolves were also beaten on their travels before also failing to win at home in their next two, drawing with Cardiff and losing to Plymouth.
Things could clearly only get ‘Berra’, and they did, pretty quickly.
Back-to-back wins at Crystal Palace and Sheffield Wednesday propelled the promotion push back on track and, just 77 days after completing his move South of the Border, the big defender was a key part of the Wolves team celebrating promotion to the Premier League.
“That Coventry game was a bit of an eye-opener as I recall,” he says.
“They had some quick and powerful strikers – Clinton Morrison and Leon McKenzie and then Leon Best coming off the bench – they were big, strong boys and I soon realised I needed to improve and get stronger.
“I did better in the game at Burnley but we didn’t win in my first few games before we managed to get on a decent run before the end of the season and secure promotion with a couple of weeks to spare.”
Worrying about transfer deadlines, or powerful opposition centre forwards, as a player at least, is now a thing of a past for the affable 37-year-old former defender.
And memories of great footballing afternoons, with club and country, and winning with Wolves against the likes of Saturday’s opponents Tottenham, now mean that little bit more.
That’s because Berra recently announced he was hanging up his boots after a hugely successful near-20-year career in which he made over 650 senior appearances and secured 41 full Scotland international caps.
He also managed to head into the opposition penalty area to score 26 goals at club level – more on that particular stat later – as well as four for his country.
But this isn’t the end of Berra’s footballing story. Far from it.
He has completed his ‘A’ and ‘B’ Licence coaching badges with plans to study for his Pro Licence, as well as an Applied Football Management qualification from Edinburgh’s Napier University, which teaches the skills required to become a manager, director of football or academy director.
Berra is very much hoping to pop back up on a training pitch or in a dugout very soon, but after making several League Cup appearances for Raith Rovers, where he had also been getting involved in the coaching, he realised that his time was up as a player.
“Fitness-wise I felt o-k and had come through pre-season without any problems but I just felt I wasn’t as sharp and aggressive as I needed to be,” is his candid assessment.
“As defenders I sometimes think the mental side of the game is so important, especially if you perhaps compare it to being a striker.
“Listen, I know being a striker has its own pressures but I think in a way it is a bit more relaxed because if you make a mistake, it’s probably not as damaging.
“As a defender, you are always on edge and so concentrated to go into a game not wanting to make a mistake, lose a goal or get beat in the air.
“I was probably my biggest critic when I played and put a lot of pressure on myself, so while I enjoyed training, the build-up to the games would take a lot out of me mentally.
“Losing that sharpness and aggression was a big part of my game, and some of my pace as well because although I don’t think people think I was that fast, that was one of my assets.
“You never quite know until it actually happens but it felt like the time was right and I have also had my coaching brain on as well for the last three or four seasons, always analysing things and working out what we maybe could be doing better.
“In my head it’s been coming for a while and there comes a time when you take that step back and start thinking about the next chapter of your career.”
It’s a career which topped and tailed in his native Scotland, being taken on in his last year at youth level by Hearts where he went on to turn professional.
His debut came as an 18-year-old back in November, 2003, as a substitute away at Dundee United, and his appearances gradually increased over the following years until eventually becoming a regular, and also Hearts’ captain.
He was an unused substitute in the Scottish Cup final win on penalties against Gretna in 2006, but, as the Romanov era brought in new investment and success to the Jambos, featured in both Champions League qualifiers and UEFA Cup ties a couple of years later.
“I have so many fond memories of my time at Hearts,” Berra explains.
“It was the club where I started out, they gave me my chance and I learned so much from all the coaches and managers, and I owe them a lot.
“Of course, there were ups and downs and times of transition with a lot of player ins and outs, but they made me captain and I think I was one of the youngest captains they have ever had.
“I’m a boy from Edinburgh who lived the dream!”
Berra would later return to Hearts after a four-year spell with Ipswich Town which followed his time at Wolves, and he would win Player of the Season awards with both clubs.
He also had a loan spell at Dundee before rounding off his playing days at Raith, playing days which included that memorable promotion success at Wolves which paved the way for three seasons in the Premier League.
“Those weeks when we managed to secure promotion were particularly memorable, and also the Derby game which put us so close,” says Berra.
“I think that was the second of two games over the Easter weekend, and the lack of recovery time which was new to me having played in Scotland, and I remember I had a stinker at Derby - all the defence did - and Mick (McCarthy) wasn’t happy with us.
“But we managed to win the game 3-2 to take us to the brink of promotion, and those scenes when Andy Keogh got the winner will always be remembered.
“Then going on to play in the Premier League - that’s an ambition of any player when they start out.”
Over the following three seasons, as Wolves first survived comfortably, then on the last day, and then got relegated, Berra made 96 league appearances, a total bettered only by Matt Jarvis from the squad at that time.
Obviously there were many mixed memories, but some big wins, with Berra part of the defence which helped the team to three points against Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea.
“When you are there in the moment and living it, you probably don’t fully appreciate what you are doing,” he explains.
“Those wins against the big boys were especially good to remember although we also got pumped a fair few times as well.
“I think we were among the lowest spenders in the Premier League at the time, and our game was based on being hard-working, trying to be hard to beat and winning our individual duels.
“It is certainly very different at Wolves now where they have spent a lot of money and have been doing really well.
“With Wolves during my time, as a defender you were often up against it and overworked and your form could drop as a result so knowing only Jarvo played more games than me is quite a nice stat!
“We had a great group as well, a really good team spirit, and I was certainly one of the quieter ones in that dressing room.
“I came in a couple of years after most of them and they already had a strong bond, but everyone got on, and I was in Sutton Coldfield in a car school with the likes of (Karl) Henry, Foles (Kevin Foley), Doyler (Kevin Doyle), Wardy (Stephen Ward) and Hunty (Stephen Hunt).
“Later on in the Premier League, the squad got split up a bit and things changed but hopefully it will still be remembered for being a really successful time.”
The Hunt and Berra banter exchanges were particularly brutal, and yet the two were reunited later at Ipswich where it became a landlord/tenant relationship for a while.
“Yeh he stayed with me for a while, I was his landlord, and we were o-k - I mean you only slaughter each other because you get on well, don’t you?” Berra laughs.
There were more familiar faces at Portman Road in boss McCarthy and assistant Terry Connor, reunited with the Wolves signing who would spend another four decent seasons in East Anglia.
“Mick and TC were a great combination and obviously I’m indebted to Mick for signing me both for Wolves and then Ipswich,” says Berra.
“He is a top guy and great man manager who knew how to deal with players individually to get the best out of them.
“He could be tough as well and I wouldn’t always agree with what he said but that’s part and parcel of football and I really enjoyed working with him.
“I always had an opinion, not in a bad way, and I think he appreciated that and the fact I was probably quite switched on.
“TC was always the one helping with extra work on the training ground and I owe a lot of credit to them both for the development of my career as a player.”
Connor had stepped in to manage Wolves following McCarthy’s departure, ahead of the return to the Championship in which Stale Solbakken and Dean Saunders took separate stints at the helm as the team suffered their second successive relegation.
It was to prove Berra’s last season at Molineux, but one in which he maintained his standards, especially under Solbakken, amid speculation that he was angling for a move following Wolves’ Premier League demise.
“I certainly don’t remember putting a transfer request in, I think you are always looking to play at the highest level but for me I have always just knuckled down and got on with it,” Berra explains.
“Solbakken came in and I don’t think he was having me at first, but then I remember I was on the bench on the opening day at Leeds and he turned to me during the game and told me to be ready as I would be in for the next game.
“I played pretty much every game for him after that and I think I did o-k, he was a different type of manager but he definitely improved me tactically as a player.
“I don’t know what happened towards the end of the season as I didn’t feature for the last few months under Saunders.
“The club had offered me a contract but I wasn’t really sure what to do having been there for four years so whether that was why I didn’t feature I’m not sure.
“I was completely binned from the squad, not even named on the bench, although I remember being part of the travelling squad for away games.
“That was difficult, not being able to contribute, and then before that last away game at Brighton I was told the day before not to bother travelling.
“I had been expecting to travel, and knew I was probably going to be leaving, so I had to go around saying goodbye to everyone which I don’t like doing and it got quite emotional.
“I got a bit teary as I had made a lot of friends and was saying goodbye to a lot of people who I thought I might not ever see again.
“That was disappointing, as I had trained as normal, never let my standards drop and while I know people weren’t happy with how things were going, I really don’t think we would have got relegated under Solbakken.
“It was only towards the end of that season that it all really went downhill.”
A disappointing way to finish for sure, but also with two issues relating to Berra’s legacy which Wolves fans continue to mention and debate to this day.
Namely, how on earth he never managed to score from 154 appearances, and how he got away with so many wrestling matches inside his own penalty area when Wolves defended set pieces.
The man himself laughs when faced with those particular questions!
“The goals thing was ridiculous,” he admits.
“I should have scored in my very first game against Coventry, and it just seemed to go on from there.
“Keepers seemed to have ‘worldies’ when I was up against them, I remember my former Hearts team-mate Craig Gordon making an incredible save from me for Sunderland, and while I got a few assists for Jody (Craddock) I just couldn’t find the net.
“Then I went off to Ipswich, scored in my second league game and got five in my first season and seven in my second – I really can’t explain it.
“As for the marking at set pieces, well defenders have to get touch tight when defending corners, haven’t they?
“The older I got the better I seemed to get at it but I would also say that I used to get my shirt pulled as well!
“I usually had to pick up the best opposition header of the ball as well, so I needed to do everything I could to stop them scoring.
“And you try going in to face Mick McCarthy for a grilling if you have lost your man for a header at a corner!”
These are all footballing experiences and indeed life experiences which Berra has taken from his two decades as a player and which, coupled with his coaching
qualifications and general level of intelligence around the game, will stand him in good stead as he embarks on his next chapter.
He remains open minded about where his first opportunity might come, and knows he will have to prove himself all over again, but after a short break with his wife Carla and family, he is certainly ready and hungry for what lies ahead.
“It is only now that I look back and feel really fortunate to have played at so many brilliant stadiums and up against so many top strikers,” Berra concludes.
“Could I have had a more successful career? I don’t know, but that was my path and it can’t be taken away from me.
“I made not far off 700 career appearances, got 41 caps for Scotland, played in the biggest league in the world in the Premier League as well as the Scottish Premier League and both Championships, and learned from all of those different experiences.
“I’ve already done a bit of coaching at both Hearts and Raith but am now ready and really looking to try and get back into it.
“I know it will be difficult and lots of people have the same ideas and ambitions but hopefully I’ve got the ability to make another half decent career.
“In my head this day of finishing playing had been coming for a while and it’s been lovely to get so many messages from people who I played alongside and fans from all the different clubs.
“But now, coaching is something I’ve got a real passion about, and I am really keen to get back into it in the weeks and months ahead.”
For Berra, the transfer window for looking to break into the ever-competitive world of coaching and management, is very much open for business.