With Jon Daly a front-runner for the head coach vacancy, there may be life in Levein’s “boot room” succession strategy yet.
Since the last article I wrote was almost immediately rendered obsolete by Ian Cathro’s sacking 12 hours after I’d posted it, I figured a piece about our ongoing managerial search would have the same effect and lead to a permanent appointment after nearly a month of speculation.
Our next appointment is crucial and so it’s understandable that the club wants to take time to ensure the right person is brought in, not only to galvanise the squad for the season ahead but also to get a disillusioned support back onside. These are the more pressing, shorter term priorities for the club just now, though there are undoubtedly longer term implications to consider when selecting Cathro’s successor.
Many believe that Cathro’s sacking was the final nail in the coffin for Craig Levein’s much-maligned “Anfield boot room” strategy of employing up-and-coming coaches from within the club and a statement issued by the Tynecastle hierarchy — citing the need for a more experienced head coach — certainly seemed to support that theory.
A number of more experienced names soon became linked with the role and a few of the “higher profile” ones reportedly applied, which led to the shortlist of five that appeared in the papers at the start of the week. For many, that shortlist underwhelmed, not so much because the candidates in question lacked experience, but because none of their CVs inspired a great deal of confidence.
Such was the underwhelming nature of the list, in fact, that Jon Daly’s inclusion didn’t seem in any way peculiar despite his relative inexperience. Some of the more sceptical fans out there have come to the conclusion that this has been the club’s intention all along, and that the delaying tactics which led to the likes of Dougie Freedman and Billy Davies withdrawing their applications have been deliberately engineered to set Daly up as the best available applicant.
It’s a theory that has been undermined somewhat by recent reports of Ann Budge’s caginess over appointing another inexperienced head coach, but whether it has happened by accident or design, Daly certainly looks a far more credible candidate now than he would have done in the immediate aftermath of Cathro’s departure, particularly when his biggest rival for the job, Steven Pressley, remains such a polarising figure with the Hearts support.
In Daly’s defence, I don’t believe one poorly-judged appointment is valid grounds for ripping up an entire recruitment philosophy, particularly when a similar appointment worked so well before it. It does, however, provide an opportunity to “reboot” the boot room, so to speak.
For such a system to work, the coaches being promoted have to be ready and for those coaches to be ready, they need to learn from someone with experience over an extended period of time. In hindsight, a 30-year old rookie like Ian Cathro was never going to be that someone.
Granted, Robbie Neilson was also a young and inexperienced coach at the time of his appointment, but he came into the role armed with knowledge and experience of a Scottish footballing environment which had formed the backdrop for the majority of his 14-year playing career. Cathro, by contrast, had cut his coaching teeth in sunnier climes and that lack of familiarity with the Scottish game was telling during his eight-month tenure.
Cathro also represented an immediate break in the succession plan, having been employed externally. At the time, Craig Levein referred to his earlier efforts to bring Cathro in as U20s coach in 2014 and that he still considered him an internal appointment of sorts. However, that was clearly nonsense.
In fact, had Cathro taken the U20s job (in the absence of the offer from Valencia) events may have panned out differently for him when he eventually replaced Neilson. For starters, he would have had over two years to familiarise himself with the club, build a rapport with the players and become more accustomed to Scottish football in general without being directly in the limelight. With that experience under his belt, he may have had a smoother transition into the head coach’s role and faced far less cynicism than he did.
Whether or not you deem that to be Cathro’s loss, it’s certainly almost two years of experience gained from Daly’s perspective, which is significantly more than Neilson had as Hearts U20s coach prior to his own promotion.
While certain sections of the support had eventually grown tired of him, it’s safe to say the Hearts board weren’t expecting to lose Neilson’s services as soon as they did, so it’s entirely plausible that they had planned for the Jon Dalys and Andy Kirks at the club to learn from him over a longer period of time.
It’s a plan that would also have been in place when Daly’s predecessor was given the U20s job back in 2014, and although the circumstances surrounding Jack Ross’ departure from the club in October 2015 remain somewhat enigmatic, the former Alloa and current St Mirren manager still regards his 15-month spell at Hearts as an invaluable learning experience. Speaking back in May, Ross said:
“The 15 months I spent there were terrific for me in terms of my own development. I got to witness working first hand at a really big club. I was fortunate enough to be there through a really successful period for the club as well. I worked very closely with Robbie Neilson during that period and witnessed how he dealt with it as a young manager. These experiences stood me in very good stead when I got the opportunity to manage in my own right.”
It may not have worked out for Ross at Hearts, but his subsequent spells at Alloa and St Mirren suggest he left the club better for the experience and more prepared for the rigours of managing his own sides. There’s nothing to say Daly will or won’t be similarly prepared at this stage, but even if he doesn’t land the job this time round, his place on the shortlist certainly suggests that he is next off the coaching production line and that the boot room strategy has been put on temporary hold as opposed to abandoned altogether.
Certainly, having stated his desire and readiness to step into the position on a permanent basis, the 34-year old Irishman will have done his reputation no harm at all in the caretaker role this past month.
An opening day defeat to Celtic was always likely, and not the ideal starting point for any interim coach, but the result itself eventually became a secondary matter when Daly was made to field the usual questions about the running of the club, this time off the back of pure conjecture from Brendan Rodgers. Where his recently departed predecessor was often accused of skirting round the issue and talking in riddles, Daly was unwavering and to the point, negotiating a potential media minefield with the composure of a seasoned veteran.
Since then, he’s overseen two very respectable results away from home against Kilmarnock and Rangers which, given our well-documented troubles on the road, we could only have dreamed of at the start of the season. What’s more, the players appear to have been reinvigorated under his stewardship, none more so than Arnaud Djoum, whose performance at Rugby Park a fortnight ago was unrecognisable in comparison to what we’ve seen from him recently and more in tune with the Djoum of old.
Having inherited a lost and disconsolate squad only a few weeks ago, it says a lot for Daly’s efforts that the chorus of players’ voices campaigning for him to be appointed on a full-time basis has increased quite considerably in volume. However, actions speak louder than words and after last season, talk is particularly cheap at Hearts these days. A three point haul away to Motherwell tomorrow would go a long way to helping the players’ and Daly’s cause.