After Robbie Neilson’s anticipated, and unnecessarily dramatic, exit from Hearts FC earlier this week, the Scottish footballing world held a collective breath, eagerly anticipating the club’s next move.
Hearts have gone bold and handed the managerial reigns to 30-year-old Ian Cathro. Clearly, the board liked the previous formula and have found the man to fit – a young, intelligent, new-school manager who has pedigree on the training field.
For many, the appointment is a risk. It’s a bit brave, a bit left-field, and perhaps even a bit naïve. After all, what does a 30-year-old, that has never played professional football, know about managing one of Scotland’s top clubs?
Well, there is something just a bit special about this young Dundonian.
For starters, his CV is exemplary. Such excellence, achieved at such an early age, rarely graces Scottish clubs.
At Dundee United he was the head of the youth academy, pioneered the BOX Soccer training programme (which is currently deployed by Hearts among others) and nurtured talents such as Ryan Gauld and John Souttar.
A daring move to Portugal followed where at Rio Ave he was the assistant manager, guiding the small-town club to two cup finals and European qualification – a first for the club.
On to Valencia, Spain’s third club, where he was widely lauded in European circles for his early burgeoning talent.
Concededly, his time at Newcastle United may best be labelled as ‘a learning curve’, but the fact that both Steve MacLaren and Rafa Benitez wanted Cathro standing next to them in the technical area speaks volumes – especially when the latter was expected to bring his own background staff to Tyneside.
All of this has been achieved by Ian in his twenties. In total, he has amassed 8 years of top level experience. Yet, there are sceptics.
His ability to command a dressing room is one of the main arguments levelled against him. However, arguments over his immaturity and inexperience meaning he’s “out of his depth” just don’t wash.
If his debut press conference is anything to go by then he is hardly a shy, retiring wallflower. If player interaction does become a problem, then he has his personable assistant, Austin MacPhee, to act as a buffer between himself and the players. In any case, respect will not be hard to earn- the Tynecastle dressing room will know a good coach when they see one.
To put it simply: in what way is a man that has coached professional players at the top end of Portuguese, Spanish and English football a lesser candidate than a 40-something recently retired ex-pro with some coaching badges?
Cathro’s hard-earned experience should alleviate all doubts about his suitability for the role and make a mockery of criticisms over his inexperience. In actual fact, his appointment should be heralded as one of the smartest, most innovative decisions in Scottish football to date.
Of course, Cathro will have his challenges.
Firstly, Craig Levein. Questions have already been asked as to who will pick the team. Cathro says it’ll be him. Levein’s influence at the club may suggest otherwise. Let’s hope the young manager is strong enough to fend off his overbearing Director of Football.
Secondly, Tynecastle. The old Gorgie stadium, often lauded at the Chippy, is a financial burden. The decision to develop and refurbish the ground could play out in different ways – one of which could mean the developments become an economic minefield for the club. Hopefully Cathro’s superior coaching will successfully guide his team through what could become a period of turbulence.
Thirdly, Celtic – the irrepressible standard-bearers in Scotland. No matter how good Hearts are under Cathro, there will always be that green-tinged Glass Ceiling halting their rise. Failing to win the league won’t be a black mark on his record, but it does mean that any good work could easily go unnoticed in the wider footballing world without a title.
All things considered, this move makes a lot of sense for both club and manager.
Hearts will provide a sort of ‘sandbox environment’ in which Cathro can safely hone his skills. With no real expectation to win the league, no real danger of relegation and the backing of a steady, progressive board, the role at Hearts is an ideal breeding ground for a young ambitious manager.
Inevitably, questions over his age will take time to recede. So too will doubts over the breadth of his shoulders and the size of his feet in comparison to Robbie Neilson’s metaphorical shoes.
Therefore, anticipation and expectation cannot boil over. It is far too early to just assume that his hitherto meteoric rise will continue on the same path. However, for the sake of the game, the whole of Scottish football should be welcoming Cathro’s first step on the managerial ladder.
Cathro is the brightest talent in Scottish football right now and given time, he has the potential to be the prodigal son that the Scottish game so badly craves. So, please, just give the man a chance.