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Hearts’ Jekyll and Hyde form under Ian Cathro and the need for another summer reboot

Evening all. The easy thing to do this week would be to launch into a full-scale rant about the continued hysteria that surrounds our Director of Football, however I personally feel it’s the kind of non-issue that really doesn’t merit the frenzied reaction it’s had from certain quarters of the media.

In short, even if Craig Levein was to come out and explain — with crayons and cuddly toys as illustrative aids — a role that has so far proved too enigmatically complex for many pundits to grasp, I still don’t think it would put the issue to bed. At the end of the day, people who are convinced of a certain truth will look for any kind of evidence to support it, however tenuous the evidence actually is.

In the meantime, the rest of us can focus on the real issues that are affecting Hearts right now, such as our cripplingly inconsistent form. If you were looking for back-to-back weekends that best epitomised the Jekyll and Hyde nature of Hearts under Ian Cathro, then you’d need look no further than the most recent two that have passed.

Since Cathro’s appointment in November, Hearts’ performances have largely represented one extreme or the other, with little in the way of a happy medium. When the players execute his ideas properly, it’s an absolute joy to watch, the 4–0 dismantling of Hamilton a fortnight ago being a prime example. The players fought tirelessly for each other, found space, moved the ball well and put together a number of fast, fluent (dare I say exciting) attacking moves, while off the ball, they pressed Hamilton relentlessly into the most basic of errors.

Yes, it was “only Hamilton”, the same Hamilton that have shipped 14 goals in their last three fixtures, but given the rut we found ourselves in at that point, it was a game we could easily have made a hash of. Instead, we barely gave them a sniff.

Ordinarily, such a performance would offer cause for optimism and renewed hope ahead of a tricky trip to Aberdeen, but as most Hearts fans have come to realise — particularly this season — it’s the hope that kills you, which leads me to the other extreme: when Hearts fail to show up under Cathro, it feels like your entire soul is being drawn out in the slowest, most painful way imaginable. Saturday’s trip to Pittodrie was no different in that respect.

The result itself was obviously disappointing, just as the defeats to Hibs, Partick and Ross County were disappointing, but it’s the submissive, chicken-hearted performances that offer greater cause for concern. From the moment Shay Logan nipped in unchallenged to head Aberdeen in front after only 20 minutes, the rest of the game became a mere formality for the home side as the Hearts players predictably shrank into themselves, seemingly bereft of any self-belief that they could claw their way back into it.

This is the frustrating paradox that has defined Cathro’s Hearts tenure to date. It’s all well and good turning up to hammer relegation fodder like Hamilton and Motherwell, and if we were a bottom six side happy with our lot and looking to consolidate our own top flight status, those are the teams we would be looking to compete with. If that were the case, our current pattern of results would probably be easier to stomach. However, as Cathro has stated on numerous occasions, most recently in the build-up to the Aberdeen match, our goal is to be competing with the teams at the top:

“We look forward to the games against opponents at the top of the league, which is where we want to be. Irrespective of what happened on Saturday with our win against Hamilton, we’re more than ready to be competing with the teams we face in the next two fixtures. There’s no doubt about that, no insecurities.”

And yet, despite the insistence that there are no insecurities, this current Hearts side has come to represent that kid at school who picks fights with those smaller than him, only to cower away in fear when challenged by someone his own size or bigger. While there are one or two of the players who simply aren’t good enough to take the club to the levels expected, the deeper-rooted issue for me is the mental fragility that appears to have set into this side like dry rot, a lack of mettle when faced with more challenging circumstances and opponents who get in their faces.

Changing that mentality in a player, however, is arguably more difficult than improving his technical ability; for that reason, there has to be a more considered approach to this summer’s recruitment if we want to make the desired progress, something Cathro appears to be well aware of:

“At this moment, we have to accept that Aberdeen are a strong group with an organised way of playing. They have been in a routine for a number of seasons now. Our job is to improve ourselves with the clear objective of getting to that level and surpassing it… When we look to the new season, we will be in a much stronger position to be able to fight at the level we should be.”

While I strongly believe Cathro should be given this summer to rebuild, there is undoubtedly pressure on him to get it right. Since we returned to the Premiership, Aberdeen have represented the benchmark of squad consistency and stability that we want to reach; on numerous occasions in the past two seasons, the line that “this Aberdeen side have been an established unit for years” has been the go-to defence whenever we’ve fallen short, but always with the added assurance that we are in the early stages of reaching that ideal type ourselves. However, in the three years since the club came out of administration, we have essentially had a new squad every season, such has been the level of player turnover.

It’s a level of turnover that I’ve defended in the past and it can at least be rationalised to a point: a particular set of players were recruited to get us promoted, and while some of those players were able to make the step up a league, others fell short of what was required to challenge in the Premiership, hence the need for new recruits.

However, while some of those new recruits impressed (Djoum and Rossi in particular), many who initially promised so much have disappointed and are either out of favour (Oshaniwa, Rherras), already playing elsewhere (almost every striker we’ve signed since promotion) or still disappointing us on a near-weekly basis (Tziolis, Sowah).

This is all being said with the benefit of hindsight, of course, but it’s still a pretty unfavourable indictment of our recruitment strategy over the past couple of seasons. If the aim is to emulate what Derek McInnes has done at Aberdeen and build a consistent group of players who can perform well at this level for seasons to come, the club cannot afford to sanction annual “rip up and rebuild” jobs. Although Ian Cathro cannot be held responsible for mistakes made before his Hearts tenure, he’ll almost certainly be culpable in the eyes of supporters if the same mistakes are repeated.

Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on March 23, 2017.

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