Alan Pattullo: Jon Daly is far from Craig Levein's patsy
Welcome Jon Daly, new permanent head coach of Heart of Midlothian. Such an introduction doesn't seem so impossible now the Irishman has spent just over a fortnight in the temporary post.
Of course, it’s still almost certain the Tynecastle club will turn to an experienced candidate to replace Ian Cathro, even if one of those interested, former England head coach Steve McClaren, is now on the brink of joining Maccabi Tel Aviv.
It wouldn’t do to compound the seeming folly of turning to a 30-year-old head coach with no experience of leading a football club by appointing, well, a 34-year-old with little experience to replace him.
But if not the next head coach, if not even the one after that, then Daly, along with the similarly highly-regarded Austin MacPhee, are certainly impressing the right people. What Daly is learning now will prove invaluable to him in the future, wherever he ends up.
It was two weeks ago yesterday that Hearts announced Ian Cathro was leaving the club after just 30 games, and eight months, in charge. It quickly emerged Daly would be given the reins on a temporary basis, the reasoning being that MacPhee, pictured below, as Cathro’s assistant the obvious next in line, had World Cup qualifying commitments with Northern Ireland, where he is also assistant head coach, at the end of this month.
But there was also a desire to protect MacPhee, who Hearts would like desperately to play a part in the club’s future. With four opening league games away from home to be negotiated, it wasn’t seen as helpful for MacPhee’s continuing development to be associated with what many feared might be four defeats. So into the breach was thrust Daly to perform the function of a sacrificial lamb. At least that’s how it felt.
The reality has proved a little different. He and his staff are already doing better than many projected, with three points secured via last Saturday’s hard-fought 1-0 win at Kilmarnock. The trip to face Rangers on Ibrox this weekend now doesn’t seem such a nerve-ridden prospect.
Daly, for one, should harbour few fears.
The hardly unexpected heavy reversal to Celtic on the opening day was reduced to a sideshow in any case after Daly’s bravura performance in the media room afterwards. Irked by Brendan Rodgers’ expansive comments about Hearts’ modus operandi, he embarked on a monologue that, according to those there, while impassioned, stayed the right side of fiery. He didn’t lose sight of his target, nor did he seem over the top
In fact, many agreed with what he had to say. What business did Rodgers have with how Hearts choose to operate?
Some voiced the suspicion he’d merely parroted what director of football Craig Levein told him to say. If so then the word perfect Daly can surely look forward to a career on the stage if this coaching lark fails to work out for him. Managers shouldn’t comment on other managers, protested Daly.
“Well, he isn’t a manager yet,” was Rodgers’ wry response.
“Yet” being the operative word.
Daly began his senior career in English football, where he was a regular scorer at Stockport County and Hartlepool, before heading north a decade ago to join Craig Levein at Dundee United. It was a move that would completely alter the course of his career. Although Levein moved on to take charge of Scotland, he and Daly kept in touch. Daly also kept in touch with Dave Bowman, the former Hearts and Dundee United midfield enforcer and now a long-serving coach at the Tannadice club. According to Bowman, Daly always stuck out as a potential coach during his playing days at Tannadice. “He always spoke well, he is passionate about things – and he will say what he thinks, as we’ve seen,” recalled Bowman yesterday.
No one needs tell Bowman how difficult it is to move into the manager’s position on an interim basis and with little warning. Bowman stepped into the vacancy left by Jackie McNamara’s departure and looked on helplessly as United were unable to break the losing habit at Partick Thistle in late 2015, going down 3-0. “It can be thankless,” said Bowman.
Around the same time Daly contacted Bowman prior to taking the Under-20s role at Hearts. “He was always willing to learn,” said Bowman, now Under 20s coach at Tannadice. “I hope he kicks on and does get it (the job). I actually don’t think Ian (Cathro) was that far away from getting results – it’s just the way it goes in football.
“Jon has his own ideas,” added Bowman. “He knows where he is going, he knows what he wants.” As Bowman attests, it can be hard to slip quietly back into the shadows once you have a taste of the first-team environment.
Daly was involved under Cathro – just not always in the way the Dubliner might have preferred.
While quietly getting on with the task of taking the Under-20s side, Daly was thrust into the spotlight last season when cast as the patsy despatched to deliver notes to Cathro from on high in the directors’ box at Pittodrie.
Never mind that critics were getting exercised about something that goes on during games at grounds across the land, it still wasn’t a great look for Daly. A 6ft-plus nuisance of centre forward in his heyday, a thorn in the side of any defence, he seemed emasculated by this incident. The impression was he was Levein’s useful idiot.
But he is now going a long way to disproving that.