Why Ian Cathro was out of his depth by swimming against the tide

Why Ian Cathro was out of his depth by swimming against the tide

It was only ever a matter of time for Ian Cathro at Hearts.

Was his goose cooked the moment ex-Rangers’ striker Kris Boyd used his column in The Sun to paint a picture of a ‘shy lad who hardly spoke to anyone when we were on the same coaching course’?

Did he lose all credibility following a cringe-worthy interview after a 1-1 draw with Raith Rovers in February?

Or maybe Cathro’s churlish response to a midweek cup defeat at Peterhead, where rival boss Jim McInally found a post match handshake absent, provided the tipping point.

Regardless, when his most vocal media supporter Chris Sutton said he’d considered the 30-year old rookie boss to be ‘a dead man walking’ following a weekend home loss to Dunfermline he was merely stating the obvious.

Ian Cathro’s reign at Hearts ends with the Tynecastle club sacking the rookie manager. © Hearts FC

The ref had checked his watch. It was only a matter of when exactly he’d call time.

Another ham-fisted rebuttal of his critics followed that penalty kicks defeat to The Pars on Saturday on BBC Radio Scotland. When asked if he had a message for the fans who’d viciously rounded on him as he trudged down the tunnel following the home Dunfermline defeat, he said he would “not waste my time making comments or asking for anything”.

But ironically, it was not words but the stats, so beloved of the former Rio Ave, Valencia and Newcastle coach, that provide the most damning indictment of his reign at Tynecastle.

Two stats, in particular, stand out.

Just eight wins in 30 games as Hearts’ boss, with two of those victories coming against part-time opposition in Elgin and East Fife.

There’s also the fall-out of a transfer record that reads that just three of Hearts’ eight players signed by Cathro in the winter transfer window were still at the club by the summer.

Indeed, such was the turnover of staff, estimated at somewhere around 50 bodies in and out by the BBC’s Tom English on Saturday, that no-one should say that this was not wholly Ian Cathro’s team.

And where were the signs of progress and recovery that Cathro claimed so emphatically would come, on a number of occasions following reversals?

Hearts were three points above Aberdeen in third when Cathro took over in December 2016, following the departure of Robbie Neilson to MK Dons.

But they finished the season 30 points behind the Dons in fifth and failed to qualify for Europe as Cathro won just six of his 26 matches in charge last season. Hearts endured an embarrassing William Hill Scottish Cup derby defeat by Neil Lennon’s recently promoted Hibernian. In retrospect, it was a fatal wound, a defeat from which, the young manager would never recover.

“The Cathro gamble backfired, not because he was the wrong man, at the wrong club at the wrong time but because it simply exposed the flawed logic of football’s creeping corporatism.”

Certainly, there is no doubt Cathro’s failing at Hearts is significant. Regardless of his sacking at a provincial Scottish club. And this is because his appointment both so polarised opinion and has had so much invested in it by the rival camps within the football industries.

Make no mistake, the technocrats with their coaching philosophies, corporate management speak and PowerPoint presentations will consider it a setback. A rejection of one of their own.

Ditto the armchair fans and keyboard warriors who claim they’d do a better job than the dinosaurs in the dug-out, given their chance.

And it is also one in the eye for the press box boys, the ‘fans with laptops’ who hailed Hearts’ ‘bold and different’ unveiling of ‘a young, innovative coach’.

All should have reason to pause for thought because Ian Cathro’s dismal reign in Edinburgh now provides the perfect rejoinder for those that favour ‘football jobs for football people’.

The Cathro gamble backfired, not because he was the wrong man, at the wrong club at the wrong time but because it simply exposed the flawed logic of football’s creeping corporatism. With its MBA’s, its pointy shoes and PhDs, corporate football reeks of the hubris of Disney and X Factor. Its rallying call is the naive belief that hard work and good presentation will win the day – that given opportunities we can all become exceptions to the rule.

But football isn’t a TV talent show, it is a game of hearts and minds, of persuasion, alchemic team-building and emotional intelligence.

As Ian Cathro was appointed in December, Kris Boyd set out the current terms of reference rather better than he was given credit for at the time.

Boyd said: “I don’t see him as a dominant figure and someone who can tell it straight to players before, during or after matches. I fear for him when he has a 30-something seasoned pro asking him why he’s not in the team. Maybe this is just the way the game is going, though, that’s arguably the biggest thing about this.

“People go on about one of the reasons our game is in decline is too many youngsters spend too much time on their computers. But Cathro has shown that is maybe the best way into coaching in the modern era.”

And yes, the Mac Book naysayers of course can point to all sorts of outliers as exceptions to the rule of football as a game of cold eyes, hard-won experience and restrictive codes. But that is also to completely miss the point. All the ‘outsiders’ who succeed in football, whether we’re talking about a Jose Mourinho (a translator), an Arrigo Sacchi (a shoe salesman) or a Zdenek Zeman (a PE student and volleyball and handball youth international), succeed precisely because of one fundamental personality trait. All of them are compelling individuals, people that others want to follow, that others believe in. This is because football, fundamentally, is a people business built on rapport and real emotions. Football matches are not won on spreadsheets, in presentations or in data funnels.

In a world in which almost every other discipline you’d care to name in life requires ‘management’, it is football that is the exception to the rule. Where it really matters, football requires ‘leaders’ not ‘managers’. And leaders, true leaders, possess a unique skill-set.

It is no accident that Sir Alex Ferguson’s great post-retiral book bears the title ‘Leading’ rather than ‘Managing’, according to its co-creator the equally legendary Silicon Valley venture capitalist Michael Moritz. And Moritz, a multi-billionaire former journalist is a man that knows a thing or two about successful team dynamics as an early stage investor in Google, Paypal and YouTube at Sequoia Capital.

It is significant perhaps that Cathro’s great CV successes have come ‘abroad’ in Portugal and Spain or alongside singular individuals such as Rafa Benitez, Steve McLaren and Craig Levein – personalities who split opinion just as much as Cathro does himself.

For the rest of us, and perhaps the failing is ours, there is clearly something lost in translation.

A friend of mine, a high ranking broadsheet sportswriter, tells a compelling anecdote that perfectly illustrates the impression of Cathro as a product of over-weaning ambition undone by a limited breadth of learning.

Grappling to explain the problems faced by ill prepared young players he is said to have made the analogy: “It’s like giving a kid some brushes and asking him to paint a Mozart.”

Reading this line, there are other choice cultural allusions that spring to mind, not least the favoured kiss-off of ‘Football’s Master Spy’ Tony Collins. TC, that great former right-hand man of Don Revie and the proud recipient of a PFA lifetime achievement award at the age of 91, has seen it all before of course, with England, Man United and Leeds where he was Brian Clough’s ‘babysitter’ during his ill-fated tenure at Elland Road. With the best scout’s brevity of style Tony Collins habitually describes those whose ambition outstrips their ability as ‘yet another comedian that wants to play Shakespeare’.

It is an apposite summation of Ian Cathro’s 239 tumultuous days as boss of Hearts.