by Harry McArthur
Following manager Robbie Neilson’s departure from the club in early December 2016 for English League One outfit MK Dons, Hearts had a big decision to make as to who to appoint as their next manager. The fans were unhappy with Neilson despite sitting behind only Celtic in the league, but the displeasure stemmed back to their cup defeat the previous season to fierce rivals Hibernian. Instead of browsing around the local managers who knew the Scottish game – or even Hearts heroes such as Paul Hartley or Steven Pressley – Hearts took a chance on a young man with a wealth of coaching experience – Ian Cathro.
On paper Cathro looked like a coup for Hearts. I personally thought he was going to be a great success, having coached at a decent level across Europe. He started as a youth coach for Dundee United and helped nurture the young talent they had coming through, such as Ryan Gauld, Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven. He then went on to work under Nuno at Portuguese club Rio Ave before following the manager to Valencia, working as Nuno’s right hand man for four years. He then progressed to Newcastle and worked under big name managers Steve McClaren and Champions League winner Rafa Benitez. Understandably, therefore, was a lot of hype surrounding the 30-year-old when he took up the role of Hearts manager.
Despite these qualifications, Cathro had never managed a club before and unfortunately for him it showed. The team started out with a 2-0 defeat away to Rangers and things never really picked up from that point. In his first 26 games in charge, Cathro only managed a pitiful six wins, one coming against lower division outfit Raith Rovers who they overcame after extra time in a replay. Under Cathro, the Hearts team has looked dispirited and weak, with the lack of a leader or any real personality seeming to be the main problem. In the public eye, Cathro continued to look worse with his extremely timid and confusing press conferences. Hearts are renowned for being a club with an aggressive, passionate fan base with a lot of players who fight for the manager and the shirt. Since Cathro has arrived that has evaporated and the team look less motivated every passing week.
The majority of the Hearts fans gave the manager the benefit of the doubt for the first season, claiming he never had the chance to build the team in his own vision, and, following Rangers’ 2-1 aggregate defeat to Luxembourg side Progres Niederkorn, it seemed impossible for a Scottish club to have a more embarrassing summer. Somehow Hearts managed it in their Betfred Cup group.
Hearts were handed a relatively easy draw, facing off against Elgin and Peterhead of League Two, East Fife of League One and Dunfermline of the Championship. Hearts got off to a good start to the group, having bolstered the squad with big name signings; former captain Christophe Berra re-joining the club and former Rangers striker and Northern Irish international Kyle Lafferty arriving at Tynecastle. Both players impressed the first two games, with Lafferty scoring three goals in two early victories. Then embarrassment struck.
The Hearts team travelled to part time club Peterhead, who were just off the back of a heavy 5-1 defeat to Dunfermline, and Hearts were expected to pile on the misery on the recently relegated side. However Hearts were blown away when the Blue Toon refused to back down and were deservedly defeated 2-1 due to a 89th minute Rory McAllister penalty. This meant that Hearts needed to triumph over in form Championship side Dunfermline. Which they failed to do.
Big occasions have been utterly disastrous under Cathro, losing in the Scottish Cup to lower league rivals Hibernian, losing seven of their last 10 in the league season and falling out of the European places and now bottling the match that would have seen them go through had they won against Dunfermline. They ended up getting off to a great start and taking an early 1-0 lead through Don Cowie, but they soon capitulated and were lucky to earn a 2-2 draw. Already being out of the competition, the bonus point for the post-match penalty shootout was without merit, yet Hearts still failed to capitalise and lost out 5-3.
Cathro is clearly a knowledgeable man on football, and is a top quality coach, having worked with a lot of stars and managers. He has an eye for young talent and a knack for bringing in players without much time to work with. However he is not a football manager. Through his press conferences alone you can see that he doesn’t have the passion and drive to be a motivator and a leader in the dressing room. In so many games, Hearts go down in the first half and come out looking worse in the second half. The game against Hibernian, when they lost 3-1 at Easter Road, is probably the worst I have ever seen Hearts perform. The scoreline flattered Hearts and the lack of spirit from the boys in maroon was incredibly frustrating for their fans.
Cathro has also been unable to control the dressing room well. Striker Bjorn Johnson started the spat between the players and managers last campaign and the team chemistry hasn’t been the same since. Fan favourite Sam Nicholson left for MLS side Minnesota United for free and it looks like Jamie Walker is trying to force a move out the door with his abysmal performances in the group stage of the Betfred Cup.
I don’t think the problem lies in the magnitude of Hearts as a club; I think the problem lies with Cathro’s personality. At only 30 he can’t command respect over the dressing room and he appears to still have a lot of man management lessons to learn. Austin MacPhee seems to be a solid right hand man, with his link to the Northern Ireland national team supposedly being a decisive factor in recruiting Kyle Lafferty, but the squad Cathro has built looks nothing better or worse than mid table. However, with the season starting with four away games, followed by a first home game against last year’s runners up Aberdeen, this team could slip further towards the bottom of the table.
The sooner Hearts relinquish Cathro of his duties the sooner their fortunes will turn. He has an incredibly similar record to Terry Butcher at Hibernian, the man who got them relegated in 2014. Cathro is on a sticky wicket – the risk in hiring him has not paid off as of yet, and it does not look like it will any time soon.