A better rhythm to life and football in Portugal

Rio Ave's football players celebrate their victory in the Portuguese Cup semi final. Picture: AFP
Rio Ave's football players celebrate their victory in the Portuguese Cup semi final. Picture: AFP
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AT AROUND the same time as Scotland is rushing to finish its day’s work, Portugal is finding its rhythm, a long, languorous routine that drifts towards evening and off into the early hours.

It is one of the things Ian Cathro likes most about Latin life, together with the climate and the football, none of which can be separated from the other.

Take a wander down to the riverside centre of Porto, where the cafes and bars are open late, and you might chance upon the 27-year-old Scot, hunched over his laptop. He might be analysing the previous day’s match, preparing for the next one, or maybe even reflecting on how far he and his club have come in the last two years.

Not only is the young Dundonian, with no significant playing experience, assistant manager of a top-flight team in Portugal, he is helping them to prepare for the most momentous spell in their history. Rio Ave, a community club with an average crowd of just under 2,000, are about to play in not one, but two, national finals.

Based half an hour north, in the coastal town of Vila do Conde, the club that has forever lived in the shadow of Porto can scarcely take it all in. On Wednesday, they will play Benfica in the country’s League Cup final. Eleven days later, they will confront the same opponents in the Portuguese Cup final. Even if they lose, they will qualify to play in Europe for the first time.

“The best way to give it some perspective is to say that they have only ever been to one major cup final, and that was in 1984,” says Cathro. “This period just now is their longest in the top division, and it’s only been six years. The rest of their history has been spent in regional leagues, the second division and occasionally the Primeira Liga. So what’s happened this season has been massive.”

That Cathro should find himself at the centre of all this is a story in itself. Although briefly on the books of Forfar Athletic and Brechin City, a recurring knee injury and a degree in business management persuaded him to set up his own coaching company, the philosophy of which was at odds with traditional methods.

So effective was his programme of technical development, the key to which was repetition, that Craig Levein, the then Dundee United manager, made him head of the club’s youth academy. Two years later, again thanks to Levein – by now in charge of the national side – Cathro was put in charge of the SFA’s regional performance school in Dundee.

If that felt like a lucky break, it was nothing to what followed. Out of nowhere came an offer by Nuno Espirito Santo – whom he had met on a Largs coaching course – to join his backroom staff at Rio Ave. Suddenly, Cathro was at the nerve centre of a professional first team, learning about tactics, psychology and everything he had not needed as a youth coach.

“They are completely different disciplines, completely different industries really. In the past two years, I have gone from being solely involved in the development of individuals to competition, team processes and analysis.

“That’s what I do now. I feel comfortable with that. My ambitions now fall on that path. I would never completely disregard the other parts of football, but my career in the future will be defined by working at first-team level, no doubt about it.”

So far, the CV looks good. Last season, Rio Ave finished sixth in the league, one place below their highest-ever position, achieved in 1982, when Félix Mourinho – father of José – was the manager. This season, when they slipped down the league, they identified cup competitions as their best opportunity. “So there was a conscious decision between everyone at the club to really push that side of it,” says Cathro.

So hard did they push that only one team now stands in their way, although that team has already won the title and reached the final of the Europa League. Benfica will be Rio Ave’s opponents in Leiria this week, and in the Estadio Nacional – venue for Celtic’s 1967 European Cup triumph – on 18 May. At the start of next season, the two teams will also contest the Super Cup final, a traditional curtain-raiser between the champions and the national cup winners.

All of which is quite an education for Cathro, especially at such a young age. The man who took over at Tannadice when he was 22 is younger than at least half a dozen of the Rio Ave players. “It’s something that’s no doubt out of the ordinary, but when you think about it, how many people in work situations go through their day being overly aware of each other’s age? The relationship you have with people, the respect you have from them, has nothing to do with how long you have been on the planet.”

By working alongside Santo, who won the Champions League as a goalkeeper with José Mourinho’s Porto in 2004, Cathro is learning from one of the game’s most promising young coaches. With no relevant experience as a player, the Scot has undergone a priceless crash course in first-team football. It is an opportunity he suspects would not have been afforded him in his homeland.

“Not only was I leaving Scotland to have access to that kind of experience, I was leaving Scotland for a better footballing country. The quality of the game here is very good. To have my first experience of work at this level in this environment will be invaluable for me in the long term.

“Here, there is a massive difference in the way football is played, the tactical approach to it, its rhythm. It is more sophisticated, although for every guy who says it is sophisticated, there is another who says it is boring. Football here is planned. There are processes.”

This, he says, is a consequence of the Portuguese lifestyle, even the climate. It should not be a surprise to discover that, in a hot country, they prefer to let the ball do the work. A football match is a carefully-constructed product that grows, almost organically, from the culture that feeds it.

“Life is calmer,” says Cathro. “The sky is blue more often. Your day is longer.

“In Scotland, as soon as it gets to half past three, you’re rushing about, thinking you have to get everything done. If you want to meet someone for a coffee, or pick up your dry cleaning, it needs to be done at a certain time. Here, you can do all those things until midnight.”

He just wishes that more Scots, especially players, would try it. It would be good for them, for their game and for Scottish football, which depends too heavily on the English market for exportation. If they must seek their fortune in the Premier League, he would like them to do so via Spain, Portugal, France or Italy.

It heartens him to hear Ryan Gauld say that he would like to play in Spain. Gauld and John Souttar, two of United’s current golden generation, were among those who spent several years working with Cathro in Dundee. He will try to watch live coverage of their forthcoming Scottish Cup final, 24 hours before Rio Ave play in Portugal’s equivalent.

“We worked together for a long time, maybe five or six years. To a fair extent, we kind of grew up together in our own disciplines. So we’ll stay in touch… we’ll race each other to the top.”

Cathro, who has learned to speak fluent Portuguese, wants to take it as far as he can with Rio Ave, and when he has done that, he wants to be a manager, probably in Britain. “Come the correct moment, the correct set of circumstances, I’d like to take that step. I’m pretty clear about that. Eventually, it could be anywhere, but when I make that initial step, I want to be working in my native language. I feel that’s important.”

For now, he is concentrating on Portugal, Benfica and his over-achieving Rio Ave squad. Cathro admits that the names of the players he works with would mean nothing to a Scottish audience. “What’s more likely is that, maybe in five years, you would look back and say ‘he was there’.”

If he continues at this rate, they will be saying the same about Cathro.