The Hearts boss is finding his first job in management to be a tough one
The aim of any football manager in the internet age should be to avoid becoming a meme. Arsene Wenger has been immortalised as a zip-fidgeter, with Carlo Ancelotti’s raised eyebrow a favourite of the meme community. Last week, Ian Cathro’s excruciating post-match interview was the latest episode to immortalised.
Having just watched his Hearts side concede a late equaliser to lower league opposition in the Scottish Cup, Cathro was lost for words, quite literally, with footage of his stammering, floundering reaction quickly spreading across social media. The meme artists went to work, and they pulled no punches.
Cathro himself called the interview "cringe-worthy", shrugging off the derision he’d subsequently faced. But such is the nature of the internet age, it has regardless become the defining illustration of the 30-year-old’s current struggles. Few first time managers are put under such a spotlight, and there can be no denying he has found his first job in senior management tough so far. But perception has become his biggest enemy, which is quite a feat given how many wish to see him fail.
Results have been sub-standard, with Hearts winning just two of their seven matches under Cathro to date (one of those wins came in the Scottish Cup replay against Raith Rovers after extra time). While his predecessor Robbie Neilson was targeting second place in the Scottish Premiership, now the aim would appear to be remaining in the top six.
Of course, it’s far too early to make a conclusive judgement on Cathro’s career as a manager. Seven matches isn’t even close to being a big enough sample to base anything on. What is more concerning is the atmosphere that has started to fester at Tynecastle. Hearts isn't an especially happy place right now.
Heart of Midlothian manager Robbie Neilson (right) reacts on the touchline during the William Hill Scottish Cup, Fifth Round Replay at Easter Road, Edinburgh. Picture by Danny Lawson PA Archive/PA Images
This somewhat precedes the appoint of Cathro, though. While Neilson is regarded as one of the finest young coaches in the British game, he came under fire from a hard-to-please section of the Hearts support during his time as manager. There were gripes over his style of play, as well as the perceived soft underbelly the Jam Tarts suffered from at times. "No style, no bottle, Neilson out," as one banner flown over Tynecastle during a game put it.
The departure of Neilson to MK Dons and the appointment of Cathro as his replacement was billed as the progression Hearts had been yearning for. Here was a manager with a continental background having coached at Rio Ave in Portugal and Valencia in Spain and a history of working under managers like Rafa Benitez. He represented something.
“Every football club stands for something a little bit different,” Cathro explained in an interview two years ago while he was still a coach at Valencia. “I have an idea in my mind of what I would like to achieve in my first job. Maybe I am slightly at risk of sounding arrogant, but I would like to find the correct [club].”
Hearts looked, on the face of things, to be the correct club. They might still be the correct club, but it certainly cannot be said that Cathro has hit the ground running. Performances have been stodgy, results not much better, with the rather hasty reshuffling of the first team squad raising some eyebrows.
Heart of Midlothian's Igor Rossi Branco (right) clears the ball with Aberdeen's Jonny Hayes challenging during the Scottish Cup Fourth Round match at the Tynecastle Stadium, Edinburgh. Picture by Ian Rutherford PA Archive/PA Images
Igor Rossi, one of the breakthrough stars of the Scottish Premiership season, was sold to Al-Faisaly in Saudi Arabia. Robbie Muirhead, a young striker who had been coming into his own of late, has joined Neilson at MK Dons. Ali Ozturk, a former club captain, left to make the move to Turkey. And in their place far from convincing replacements have been signed, including a 37-year-old Aaron Hughes.
Although any criticism of the mid-season squad turnover at Hearts cannot be angled solely at Cathro, taking into account the club’s structure and how director of football Craig Levein is responsible for incomings and outgoings. It’s a system Cathro would appear to be comfortable with. “I’m a believer that a football club should never allow anyone to have full control,” he said while still at Valencia. “My experiences in Portugal and Spain are evidence of that, that that’s not a particularly healthy thing.”
But such is the nature of football, Cathro has bore the brunt of all that has been aimed at Hearts. Those who questioned his credentials, deriding him as merely a laptop manager, are feeling vindicated after a slow start. That is undoubtedly a bad thing for the sport north of the border. When everything around Cathro ultimately falls into place, the old guard mustn’t come out on top.
Scottish football needs Cathro to succeed. The sport north of the border has been left lagging, with modernisation desperately needed. There’s a certain anti-intellectualism dragging down football in the country, manifesting itself in the attention around Cathro. Should he fail Scottish football would be doomed to suffer another generation behind the times. This is about much more than just his success or failure at Hearts.