For fans of Heart of Midlothian, 9.38 pm on November 30 feels like a lifetime ago. Craig Thomson had blown the full-time whistle at Tynecastle to confirm Hearts’ 2-0 victory over Rangers. The win took the Gorgie side into second place, ahead of their opponents on goal difference.
Hearts welcome Rangers back to Edinburgh this evening in a re-run of November’s clash. In the intervening period both sides have suffered contrasting fortunes and are currently experiencing divergent trajectories.
Seven league games, one win, nine goals scored and 13 goals conceded later, Hearts sit fourth on goal difference. Nine new players, six departures, two long-term injuries and one new head coach later, they trail tonight’s opponents and Aberdeen by 11 and nine points respectively.
Is it any surprise that Ian Cathro has, at times, cut such a beleaguered and diffident figure? He walked into one of the biggest jobs in Scottish football, aged 30, and was met by an unbalanced team as well as a whirlwind of media interest.
Ever since emerging as the front-runner he was thrusted into the spotlight. There have been some within the game who, while they would never and will never admit it, are hoping he fails. And there are those, not just Hearts fans, who are willing him on to do great things, to show the perceived dinosaurs that you don’t have to have played the game to succeed, and that Scottish football is ready embrace a forward-thinking mindset.
Cathro didn’t ask to be foisted onto a pedestal. To be labelled a ‘genius’, a ‘messiah’. He insists that he pays little attention to the background noise, what is written and what is said. He simply wants to be judged on his work. In a recent interview with the BBC he rated his work as a “big fat zero”. It was a joking, self-deprecating answer, but one which wouldn’t be far off what many would award him.
One thing is clear, he has a lot to do. A lot. Speaking assuredly at his unveiling he talked about no limits being set for the team. New limits are being reached. But they are more to do with new levels of disorganisation, lack of structure to attacking play, pace and belief. All have been evident in the three games since the end of the winter break. On Sunday, Celtic weren’t required to change through the gears at any point to record an easy three points. Anything Hearts tried to execute lacked even a modicum of confidence.
Prior to that, it took 210 minutes to see off a Raith Rovers side whose last win arrived over a week before Donald Trump won the race to become president of America. They scored as many goals against Hearts as they did in their previous nine league games.
Speaking about what kind of team Hearts will be, Cathro said: “we’re going to want to use the ball, be incredibly energetic, attack and score goals, be aggressive and be as close to the opponents’ goal as we can. Will it always be perfect? No. But everyone will give their maximum. It could be an enjoyable ride.”
There have only been glimpses of the above. Cathro’s side were fantastic for nearly 60 minutes against Dundee. There was fluidity, attacking intent and control. The wheels came off in spectacular fashion as a two-goal lead was surrendered and then lost. In the following game there were more positives signs in a comfortable 4-0 defeat of Kilmarnock. Players were clearly gaining an understanding of their roles as individuals and within the team.
That was the evening that Callum Paterson suffered a horrendous injury. Despite being an occasionally defensively-suspect right-back he was the team’s most important player; the driving force, an outlet, a goal scorer, a creator, a crucial defender of set pieces, and an even more threatening attacker of set pieces. The loss of a right-back should not hurt a team with the ambitions of Hearts as much as it has.
And this is where the defence of Cathro’s nascent tenure begins. When he replaced Neilson the squad wasn’t good enough. There were, and still are, good players. But perhaps not as good as some may believe. The squad was shamefully unbalanced. This is where Neilson has to shoulder some of the blame, but more so director of football Craig Levein.
When the underappreciated Neilson left for MK Dons he left the team in a false position. The main reason for his departure is that he saw the move as a springboard to a bigger job in England. Two other possible reasons which prompted his departure could have been his standing in the eyes of an implacable element, that was growing, among the Hearts support. He may have seen the situation as irretrievable.
The second is more pertinent. Was he aware of the weaknesses within the squad and the work required to rebuild and mould the squad into something that was good enough to realistically challenge for second place this season and then progress next?
The club failed in their recruitment during the summer. This is the reason why Cathro has been so busy in the January transfer window, while also trying to lay a foundation and get his ideas across to the players. The upheaval has not helped. In January 2006, Hearts signed 11 players as they tried to push Celtic for the title and stay ahead of Rangers. Now, it is a case of fixing the mess that was created in the summer.
At the club’s AGM in December Levein admitted the club “made a conscious decision to take some risks and try to get players who were probably better than what we could afford”. The model the club use for recruiting is “risky” according to Levein.
It would be sanctimonious to criticise such a strategy as it has unearthed a number of talented players who have been key to the clubs revival and progress. However, in his role as director of football, shouldn’t it be his responsibility to have a structure in place where a change of manager doesn’t require such a drastic change in personnel? To prevent issues having to be resolved in each transfer window, where mistakes need to be corrected? Surely a key tenet of the director of football framework is to try and eliminate as much risk as possible within football operations, especially recruitment.
It is an esoteric role in Scotland. He and whoever is working under him as head coach will always have the dynamic questioned, that suspicion will always remain among fans and media, such is the myopic view of certain aspects of football in the country. There is no point focusing on whether Levein picks the team. On more than one occasion Neilson, even after his departure, Levein and Cathro have said the head coach picks the team. To continue on that line of thinking would be both pointless and unproductive.
It is a structure which is prevalent in Europe, and one which is becoming more popular down south, because it provides a number of benefits. Neilson was effusive in his praise of Levein and the role. He had a lot of menial but necessary aspects of the job taken care of so he could concentrate on first team matters. He’s now had experience of being head coach and manager and talked of a desire to bring someone into a similar role at MK Dons.
Recruitment, however, should be a shared venture. Some may say Neilson didn’t have enough influence in signing players, the case could be made for the opposite. What is clear is that an increasing number of players signed have been discarded within a year. Danny Swanson, Juanma, Juwon Oshaniwa and now Conor Sammon joins a lengthening list. There has been a lot of wastage. The two previous transfer windows have not been good enough, leading to the situation Cathro finds himself in now.
A new-look Hearts team will take to the field against Rangers. However, it is only likely to be a short-term solution to a bigger issue. This summer will bring more upheaval. While Cathro gets to work on embedding the new players and trying to keep fans on the journey he has talked about, Levein needs to be putting a plan of action in place for the summer’s recruitment drive, for a new team needs to be built. One which is good enough for the Cathro, the club and the future.