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Defeat to Dunfermline: the death knell for Cathro’s Tynecastle career?

When I first thought about how I’d approach this piece, my mind was almost immediately drawn to a scene from the second season finale of cult TV show Lost, in which the character of John Locke — a self-proclaimed man of faith who has spent countless episodes convinced that he is saving the world, and fulfilling his life’s purpose, by pushing a button in a hatch every 108 minutes — finally loses his faith. As a result, he neglects to press that button and the hatch implodes around him.

Unlike in Locke’s case, however, it’s not so much a loss of faith that has led to implosions in Gorgie, but a continuation of it. I don’t have a hatch or a button to press, but since November I have maintained a belief that Ian Cathro would eventually arrest the team’s horrendous form and turn things round at Hearts. After this weekend’s elimination from a Betfred Cup group containing three part-time teams, it seems as though my faith — and the faith of many other supporters — was blind.

With four away games at the start of our league season, this Betfred Cup group was an ideal opportunity to build some momentum and re-familiarise ourselves with the concept of winning. Unfortunately, it lasted just two games. Defeat to League Two Peterhead was an indefensible result and arguably one of the club’s lowest points, but even then, there was the feeling that a convincing win against Dunfermline (and progression into the knockout rounds) would be adequate reparation.

Last season, a result like Tuesday night’s would have been water off a duck’s back for a lot of the players in the squad, many of whom seemed increasingly disaffected as the season petered out. As Don Cowie commented prior to the trip up north:

“It got to the stage last year that you’re speaking and they’re probably just thinking, ‘he’s shouting again’ and it might get boring. Now I don’t feel it’s always me that needs to speak up because there are so many characters about that anyone can step in at any time and say what they need to say. If it can help us then great.”

Cowie’s comments painted a pretty telling picture of the lack of character within last season’s squad, not that any of us really needed him to spell it out. However, this is where I was able to find at least a crumb of solace in the wake of the Peterhead defeat. Without more leaders like Cowie last season, the players allowed disappointment and mediocrity to fester on a weekly basis. “This season will be different though”, I told myself, and anyone else who was at least pretending to listen to me in the build-up to Saturday’s decider.

After all, we’d refreshed the squad with leadership figures who have been used to a higher standard in recent seasons; characters who, instead of letting substandard performances become the norm, were more likely to channel their frustrations in such a way that would motivate the rest of the squad. This was the crux of our summer recruitment. This was when the players would put a stop to the usual post-defeat platitudes and put it right on the pitch. This was when it would finally click. Peterhead would soon be reduced to a mere bump on the road to better things.

In the words of John Locke: I was wrong.

As someone who has been an active proponent of giving Ian Cathro time, it pains me to say it, especially before the league season has even started. We all wanted this to work out, we really did. But it just isn’t.

The Hearts board have a big call to make now as to whether or not they afford him more time, although with four tricky away games to negotiate at the start of the league campaign (and our track record on the road) it’s unlikely to make a great deal of difference whether he leaves now or after those four games.

In hindsight, this has simply been too big a job for Cathro to take on this early in his career. He’s clearly a driven, ambitious guy and I have little doubt that he’ll go onto enjoy a fruitful career in coaching (and quite possibly management at a later date). It just won’t be at Tynecastle.

There is, however, one caveat I’d like to table before I bring this piece of soul-searching to a close.

An admission that Ian Cathro’s appointment hasn’t worked out is by no means a vindication of the Boyds, Fullartons and Craigans of the Scottish footballing community, narrow-minded men who will unlikely ever achieve anything of note as coaches themselves; men whose opinions about Cathro were either formed on the basis of brief coaching course encounters or the age-old ignorant mentality that someone can’t manage “if they haven’t played the game”. Others, meanwhile, formed opinions based on pure conjecture and paper talk: nothing more than opportunistic cliché-ridden soundbites designed to give themselves enough relevance to dodge the retired footballers’ scrapheap.

Nevertheless, it’s hard not to envisage the sanctimonious back-patting that will no doubt occur between the pundits on that particular bandwagon, as they queue up in their droves to inform us that they told us so. Unfortunately, what will ultimately be lost in all that noise is that a Scottish club dared to try something different.

Was the club taking a risk in employing Ian Cathro? Yes.

But was it a risk worth taking? Yes.

When the status quo is unsatisfactory, you shake things up, you think outside the box and you make decisions that you hope will bring about positive change.

Should the club apologise for doing so? Absolutely not. It was a radical appointment, which Hearts supporters rightly applauded at the time, even in the face of external ridicule.

Okay, so this particular appointment hasn’t worked, but Scottish football as a product is far from being a tried and tested success itself, which made the initial mockery such a nonsense in the first place and only exemplified the closed-shop, “jobs for the boys” mentality that continues to plague our domestic game. The longer that lasts, the longer we’ll continue as a footballing backwater, getting papped out of European competitions by the fourth-best teams from countries with smaller populations than Glasgow.

To sum up, I sincerely hope this episode doesn’t put Hearts off looking for ways to innovate and change “the way things are done around here” in future, because quite frankly, the day any club shies away from doing something different through fear of public derision, to simply plod along “as is”, should be the day we pack it in altogether.

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