As a coach, Ian Cathro has experienced the spine-tingling atmosphere at both the Mestalla Stadium and St James’ Park and he recognises the advantage playing in those arenas affords the home teams. But, having heard all the tales, he also has high expectations for Tynecastle as the new Hearts boss gears up for his first game in the Gorgie technical area.
Having lost his first game in charge, away to Rangers last weekend, his team will host Partick Thistle tomorrow and it is an occasion he says he has been keenly anticipating since agreeing to replace Robbie Neilson.
“Very much so. It was one of the first things we looked forward to as soon as work began,” he said. “I’ve not been there often but everyone talks about the environment and atmosphere. I have never actually experienced it myself at a game. I saw part of a game pre-season when we were looking at someone but, no, I’ve never been there to feel it and I’m looking forward to doing it for the first time.”
While in Spain, as an assistant coach at Valencia, he says the aura inside the home ground was often “magical”.
“The Mestalla is fantastic, really powerful to the extent you would arrive ten minutes before kick-off and you could look across to each other and think, ‘It’s a tough game but we’ll be okay’. It had that feeling,” he added. “Equally St James’ in certain moments could become a really strong place and there is a massive love for football. Maybe there are different takes on it because you’ve got cultural aspects and different feelings to different things but they are two really, really special, powerful places. I honestly feel very similar about this club. It’s not just an ordinary run of the mill club, I really feel that it is a special club with special connections and hopefully we can try and create some special environments for the team to play in and enjoy.
“[At the Mestalla], sometimes you could actually see a difference in the players, at certain points in the game. If the stadium gets up, you can see more high intensity running and tackling. It’s human nature. And we’re humans.
“The opposition maybe shrinking is a factor also. I’m sure both happen, depending on dynamics and individual circumstances. But teams who do well have strong home records. It’s important.”
While Cathro is yet to sample the vibe of a packed Tynecastle, his assistant, Austin MacPhee was present for Neilson’s final match, a high tempo, dominant victory over Rangers to leapfrog them temporarily into second place. Under the floodlights, the sell-out crowd generated an electric atmosphere and the players fed off that energy, something that Cathro has been made well aware of.
“He [MacPhee] is one of the people who has passed comment on how strong the stadium can be at times and we are looking forward to it,” said Cathro. “The atmosphere at home has proven to be a real positive in the past for the players. It is not necessarily finding more in themselves, but it maybe pushes them closer to their peak.
“You feel the support and it is the idea of feeling at home. That can just be things like routines and the same people and faces about the place and knowing that the majority are there to push you on. It has a positive effect. More so for this club, at Tynecastle, than other clubs who don’t have that connection or powerful sense of thinking ‘this is our place’.
“So I’m looking forward to our fans being close to the team and the players pushing the fans and the fans pushing them. I’m looking forward to that dynamic. There is nothing about it that brings discomfort. I’m looking forward to it and that will be hopefully be helpful to us playing the way we want to go.” A flat display at Ibrox led to the side’s fifth away game without a win. But their home form has reaped them the points needed to stay in the hunt for second place. Five of their seven league wins this season have been at home, with only one defeat sullying their Tynecastle record.
Cathro’s intention is to build on their dominance on their own turf. But he knows that even with the crowd behind them, they will have to work hard to grab the initiative against a team fighting to move off the foot of the table.
“They’re always well organised and they’ve also, over the last couple of years, made good progress,” added Cathro. “They have added different qualities, players who can start play in different situations, as well as the power and some direct play. I think credit goes to Alan [Archibald, his Partick Thistle counterpart] for the work he’s done in building quite a balanced and very well organised team.”