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Austin’s Powers; Sammon Dead in the Water

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You know what it’s like at this time of year…you spend ages hunting for that perfect present, you eventually find what you’re looking for, but for some unbeknown reason you spend too much time humming and hawing over whether to get it and by the time you decide it’s the right option, it’s gone, swiped from under your nose. You don’t know what to do, the pressure is starting to mount, Christmas is right around the corner, and so you panic and decide that the next best option is a misogynistic, racist, anti-Semitic homophobe. They’ll love that, you tell yourself.

No? Oh. Just the Regan household then…

Having missed out on Austin MacPhee when he joined Hearts last week as Ian Cathro’s right-hand man, Scottish football’s governing body judged Malky Mackay to be the most suitable alternative available to them and on Thursday appointed him as Scottish football’s new Performance Director, a decision that would be funny if it wasn’t so morally reprehensible.

If the cynicism which greeted Cathro’s appointment wasn’t enough to expose the narrow-mindedness of many an ex-professional, manager and journalist (the self-proclaimed “proper football men”) this latest episode sheds even more light on a caveman mentality so deeply-engrained in Scottish footballing culture, even the governing body is complicit.

It’s been a busy fortnight for these “proper football men”. Whereas last week, they were gathering with pitchforks in hand to burn Cathro at the stake for bringing his innovative, foreign sorcery into their country, this week saw many of them rush to defend one of their own. In Mark Warburton’s recent press conference, for example, the Rangers boss said “football man” so many times it was as if he expected Mackay’s racist and homophobic misdeeds to disappear in some kind of reverse Candyman delusion.

Of course, as the rest of us are fully aware, the term “good football man” isn’t necessarily synonymous with “decent human being” or “not a bigot” and yet Mackay’s allies have worn it like armour; a shield against all criticism.

Now, I’m reasonable enough to accept that people make occasional mistakes and are worthy of second chances, however it wasn’t as if Mackay was caught sending a single flippant text caused by a brief alcohol-induced error of judgement. We’re talking about several offensive messages that depict a deeper-rooted, conscious intolerance. Such questionable morals don’t simply disappear overnight, and although nobody is saying for a second that Mackay should be cast asunder, never to work again, the completion of one equality and diversity course hardly justifies gainful employment in such a high-profile position.

If I were Austin MacPhee, I wouldn’t know whether to be relieved or offended by this turn of events: relieved to have dodged an organisation that gives little regard to such issues, or offended that someone of Mackay’s moral stature was considered on a par with him. Either way, the SFA’s loss is very much Hearts’ gain according to the testimony of Danny Lennon, his former manager at Cowdenbeath and St Mirren:

“He’s a very honest guy whose integrity is second to none. Austin’s strengths lie in one-to-one analysis. He’s terrific at breaking it down during coaching and getting the message across to players one to one… Austin has worked at all levels of the game and he was well respected at St Mirren. He earned that respect through the good quality work he did.”

Of course, that one-to-one work will take time to bear any significant fruit. I don’t think any reasonable fan expected the new management team to have the current squad playing a completely new brand of football in only two weeks and, at the end of the day, they can only piss with the cocks they’ve got. While there were a few positive glimpses of Cathro’s preferred system in the first half of Saturday’s stalemate against Partick, the second half was an unfortunate reminder that some of the players simply aren’t performing consistently enough and had it not been for a couple of late Jack Hamilton saves, the game could easily have ended in defeat.

For all his heroics, however, Hamilton has shown very little command of his area in recent weeks and that seems to be contributing to the nervous, disjointed performances from our back four. Up front, Bjorn Johnsen continues to impress, but there is little depth beyond him.

Conor Sammon, for example, is one of those underperforming players I have badly wanted to turn the corner, but with every performance I lose a little more belief that it will happen. It’s a shame, because he’s been a target since day one, berated for every slight mistake and then sarcastically cheered for anything he does right, which is very hard to turn on its head in front of a crowd that magnifies every move you make. Nobody expected Cathro to arrive and turn Sammon into Zlatan, but having spoken recently about the need to impress his new boss, the Irishman’s efforts on Saturday are more likely to have had the opposite effect.

Having spoken last week about the galvanising effect the Tynecastle crowd can have on the team, the head coach was shown just how quickly that atmosphere can turn sour when things aren’t going to plan. If he wasn’t aware already, the jeers ringing throughout the stadium at the final whistle will have left the head coach in no doubt that changes are expected. Speaking after the game, Cathro said:

“Was I surprised by the booing at the end? No, because it’s a natural human reaction — ‘we didn’t get what we wanted, we’re not happy’. But I’m not happy. The players didn’t get what they wanted and they’re not happy. So the booing is just the voicing of that and that’s normal. If we reach the point down the line where we draw at home and everyone is fine with it, I’d be more upset with that. But we’re not fine with this.”

January’s winter break will come at an ideal time, therefore, and could act as a mini pre-season for everyone to adjust to Cathro’s preferred style of play. Furthermore, there will be scope in the upcoming transfer window to bring in a couple of new recruits better-suited to that system. In the meantime, the onus will be on the current crop of players to start impressing over the festive period and prove they can adapt, otherwise they may find their positions at the top of Cathro’s New Year shopping list.

Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on December 19, 2016.

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