Some Hearts fans might have forgotten about it while a few, having already made up their minds about the club’s beleaguered head coach, may be disregarding it – but on a chilly evening at Tynecastle four months ago Ian Cathro’s team really did produce one of the outstanding performances of the entire SPFL season.
The date was 1 February and the score was Hearts 4, Rangers 1. Four goals and it could have been more for the Jambos; they walloped Rangers that night. It seemed like a pivotal match. The Gorgie coach, after some disappointing results in his first few games, was invited to call this “the start of the Ian Cathro era,” something he modestly declined to do. It was really the night patience with Mark Warburton snapped among Rangers supporters.
Hearts’ final goal came in the 63rd minute. In the 64th Cathro sent on Sam Nicholson to get some game time, the player having had an injury-blighted season until that point, and Nicholson seemed to seek out Jamie Walker, the two-goal man-of-the-match, and say: “Let’s have some fun.”
For the rest of the night the pair tormented the hapless Rangers defence with flicks, feints, backheels, nutmegs, you name it. It was their ball, they were keeping it, and each move worthy of the name had to contain at least one piece of gallus skill to make the crowd smile. It seemed like Hearts’ future, plus that of Cathro and that of Craig Levein who appointed the manager, was wrapped up in these two men.
But no more. They’ve almost certainly played their last game as a maroon double-act. Nicholson fancies America and while for Walker it’s destination unknown, he no longer wants to be at Tynecastle. Now, talented players leave clubs like Hearts all the time. Young fans with Walker and Nicholson’s names on the back of their shirts who are possibly struggling with the concept will have to learn the rule from their fathers; it’s a Scottish football rite-of-passage. To lose two at the same time is unfortunate. Losing three with Callum Paterson’s long-anticipated departure may not be careless but it can’t have been in Cathro’s plans. It puts pressure on a summer recruitment drive which for his sake simply has to produce instant results next season. More than that it puts pressure on the efforts to reinstate team identity.
When pundits talked about Cathro’s Hearts lacking identity as they hirpled through the campaign just concluded, they meant a clear direction and a well-established strategy. What the fans mean by identity can be different. They liked it when local boys – academy graduates, Edinburgh lads, Hearts supporters – came through in season 2013-14 although, of course, the financially-stricken club had no option but to play the kids, Walker and Nicholson prominent among them. The following season after inevitable relegation the same kids, aided and abetted by some old heads, romped to the Championship title. Towards the end of the Vladimir Romanov era a disconnect had developed between the club and the support. A condition of the fans saving Hearts was that the relationship be repaired. Suddenly, having at one time in their tumultuous recent history been quite Lithuanian, the Jambos were back to being pretty Scottish. Walker spoke with a Forrester accent; the slightly more exotic Nicholson a Penicuik one.
In successive capital derbies at Tynecastle, these two shuffled into the media room in their tracksuits and if you didn’t know them you’d have assumed they were pimply-faced ball-boys who’d got lost under the main stand looking for lucky bags as reward for their efforts to enjoy on the bus ride home. In fact they were there to describe what it felt like to score with rocket shots to keep Hibernian at bay in the race for automatic promotion.
If young players are that good, they’re no longer going to hang around at Hearts, Hibs, Aberdeen and other Scottish clubs. Alex Cropley’s talent was evident from day one at Easter Road but he gave the Hibees five sparkling seasons before departing for England. Celtic and Rangers, while always on the lookout to cherry-pick from the rest, lose their best, too, and no one really expects Kieran Tierney to do five at Parkhead.
Blink and they’ll be gone. There’s little time in which to enjoy youthful promise flourishing and the same constraints apply to young managers. It is admirable of Levein in defending Cathro to say: “When you make a decision about staff you’ve got to back people.” Similarly you can find yourself nodding in agreement with Hearts’ director of football when he remarks that management is a young man’s game now, and that a young coach better understands the modern footballer – because the older men who sit in pundits’ chairs and have newspaper columns ghostwritten for them have had plenty to say already about Cathro, much of it damning.
After that 4-1 win over Rangers, good things they were said. Comparisons were made between the recruitment policies at both clubs and Warburton was found wanting for being limited in his outlook, while the Jambos earned praise for being willing to explore different markets abroad. But the upturn in Hearts’ fortunes didn’t last. The club would soon lose a Scottish Cup replay at Easter Road for the second season running, only this time being accused of having too many players in the team who didn’t understand the derby’s non-niceties and therefore weren’t hurt by defeat.
Jamie Walker understood but, despite Levein’s claim that the Hearts players understand Cathro and like him, the winger wsants to move. After the Rangers game the manager said of Walker: “He’s a massive talent. I love the way he plays, simple as that.” Without him and the other local heroes, Cathro’s tough job will surely only get tougher.