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Game of Cathrones

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Morning all! A new chapter in the post-administration era at Heart of Midlothian is now underway and for the first time since 2014, we were treated to the intrigue of a new managerial appointment following the departure of Robbie Neilson to MK Dons. Such leadership changes were once ten-a-penny at the club and it was usually more surprising if a manager lasted longer than a season under Vladimir Romanov’s stewardship before being unceremoniously turfed out. It was unusual, therefore, to see a head coach leave on his own terms having been lured away by another club.

Whether or not the rest of us deem MK Dons to be a bigger or better move for Neilson is really by the by — at the end of the day, the only person responsible for Robbie Neilson’s career is the man himself and if he sees it as an opportunity to develop further, then good luck to him. While he was hardly infallible during his time in the Tynecastle dugout, a great deal of our resurgence since the summer of 2014 has been down to his hard work and for that reason he will always be highly-regarded. If he approaches his new role with the same level of dedication, I’m sure his stock will rise further.

As one head coach signed off with a win against Rangers, his successor was unable to introduce himself with a similar result, not that his arrival had gone unnoticed in the build-up to Saturday’s defeat at Ibrox.

Since the appointment of Ian Cathro was confirmed last week, Scottish football has talked about little else, with every man and his dog having an opinion on the appointment of Scottish football’s youngest ever head coach, sparking wider existential debates about the state of our domestic game. Fortunately for Hearts, the only person who wasn’t getting caught up in the mass hysteria surrounding Ian Cathro, was Ian Cathro:

“The comments are what make football so beautiful. I’m fine with people having an opinion. I just didn’t know I was so interesting! There’s a lot of noise but I tend to only hear the things that allow me to make a difference. I one hundred per cent accept the responsibility of that risk but in the weeks and months to come some of them will disappear. And a little bit further down the line they will all be gone.”

What is absolutely certain is that those “doubts” won’t be confirmed or dispelled solely on the basis of Saturday’s result, regardless of how the press or certain TV pundits may have painted it in the immediate aftermath. While certain sections of Scottish football seem happy to let our game fester and stagnate by living in the past, we are lucky to have a club run by people who aren’t content to “make do” with the status quo, who embrace the concept of change by promoting new and innovative methods and who don’t let short-term setbacks cloud their long-term vision.

Cathro — like his predecessor and anyone who happens to follow him in future — will therefore be given time to make his mark by implementing those methods. Whether people outside the club agree with that or not is of little consequence. Of course, that doesn’t stop people still airing their views, many of which have provided considerable entertainment in recent days.

Stephen Craigan’s moment of spectacular seethe, for example, was as baffling as it was hilarious, though at times it was hard to pinpoint exactly what the Northern Irishman’s gripe was. On one hand, he insisted that he had “no issues with Ian Cathro” and that he “didn’t want his job” yet proceeded to demonstrate why the Hearts head coach was unfit for the role by picking holes (albeit misguidedly) in his CV. The claim that Cathro — a former assistant to Nuno Espirito Santo at Rio Ave and Valencia and to both Steve McClaren and Rafa Benitez at Newcastle — had “never had a job” for example.

Then there was his point about Cathro not holding the requisite qualifications that he himself holds (namely a Pro Licence), the irony of which was seemingly lost on a man who was airing these views in a media role he waltzed into after his career as a professional footballer.

And therein lies the crux of the issue. Craigan and fellow critic Kris Boyd played the game professionally, whereas Cathro did not. That classic go-to line of the football dinosaur, this notion that in order to manage in the game, you need to have played it to a ‘high level’ (note the deliberate use of inverted commas given that both of the above only ever made the grade in Scotland). Not only has such a prehistoric notion been rendered invalid by the various examples of successful managers whose playing careers were less fruitful (two of them are currently managing the top two sides in the country), it also fails to take into account the army of ex-professionals who seem to regularly find managerial gigs despite being perennial failures.

That merry-go-round is symptomatic of a “jobs for the boys” mentality which has spread through Scottish football like dry rot — a mentality that the likes of Craigan and Boyd are clearly relying on for future managerial opportunities. The appointment of Ian Cathro and his assistant Austin MacPhee, however, represents a deviation from the status quo — a nod to “something different” — and the uncertainty of that scares them. For a nation that brought so much to the world during the Enlightenment, there is a peculiar aversion to new ideas when it comes to our football.

During his rant, Craigan was quick to deny Chris Sutton’s accusations of jealousy and scoffed at those who had previously labelled Cathro a “pioneer of football” and a “genius”. “He’s not Thomas Edison,” he snapped, “He didn’t invent the lightbulb.” Maybe not, but his Box Soccer concept has been pretty successful and is another example of the new ideas someone like Cathro can bring to a table that has, for too long now, served up the same bland, uninspiring fare that Craigan and co have developed a taste for.

Unfortunately, the window of opportunity between Cathro’s appointment and Saturday’s trip to Ibrox was always going to be too small for him to impose any of those new ideas on the players — not that the situation desperately required change, given that his predecessor had left behind a squad in fine fettle and not a relegation-bound wreckage for him to sift through.

What was most disappointing, therefore, was how badly the players crumbled when many expected them to make a positive impression in front of the new boss. While Cathro’s critics may have enjoyed a wry smile at this, he will undoubtedly have learnt more about his squad after that defeat than he perhaps would’ve done if we had won as comfortably as we did a fortnight ago at Tynecastle.

If his post-match comments are anything to go by, we can be assured that such a lacklustre performance will not be the hallmark of an Ian Cathro team in the weeks and months to come:

“It’s important that [the fans] know that is not going to be what is on the grass for them. We will be better. The team in the dressing room is better than what was on the pitch today. I want them to know that. I don’t want to be passing out the card that we need time, that it’s a new thing. I don’t want that because I believe there is a good team in there. It needs to be better and we all feel that.”

What has really impressed me about Cathro since last Monday is how he comes across in interviews — not just what he says, but the conviction with which he delivers the words, refreshingly free of empty clichés. What his comments offer is hope that he won’t sit by and tolerate the kind away form we have come to expect from Hearts sides of the past 10–15 years. If he can turn that around during his time in Gorgie, he’ll more than merit pioneer status.

Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on December 14, 2016.

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