After another dispiriting loss Hearts fans turned on their manager. The club could face more revolt if he stays, writes Joel Sked.
An embarrassment. For Heart of Midlothian Football Club. For Ian Cathro and Austin MacPhee. For Ann Budge and Craig Levein. For players, past and present. For the fans.
As the clock ticked down and Hearts slipped towards an embarrassing exit from the Betfred Cup there was a sense that the girders of the new Main Stand were simply going to deconstruct themselves. Such was the disdain for that performance, for performances going back months. Too embarrassed, too much self-respect to be associated with a team who finished third after four group games against Elgin City, East Fife, Peterhead and Dunfermline Athletic.
It was supposed to the summer in which change swept through Gorgie. Out with the old, in with the new. A tough second half of the season was necessary growing pains under the management of Cathro and MacPhee with a transitory squad.
Out went the old, beloved stand. Out went a horde of unloved, instantly forgettable players. In their stead, a new gleaming stand, new players who would connect with the fans, connect with the club. The recruitment strategy had been overhauled. Well, not so much overhauled as simply installed.
This was shaping up to be post-administration Heart of Midlothian 2.0. There was no European ‘distraction’ to contend with. The management could work with their charges on the training ground ready to hit the ground running come a trip to Borough Briggs on 18 July. Four wins from four was the target ahead of a tricky start to the season which features four games away from home before Aberdeen come to Tynecastle Park...maybe.
Hearts fans were in no mood for more early or embarrassing cup exits. A straightforward group was expected to be dealt with comparable ease. It was anything but.
On that evening in Elgin which kicked off the season, Hearts toiled to break down League Two opposition. The play was laborious, a friendly feel but a win was edged out. Improvements were witnessed when East Fife came to Tynecastle. John Souttar impressed in the first 45 minutes before he exited and the performance in the second-half dropped. Another win, a small step forward.
Disaster was to follow.
League Two Peterhead defeated the Gorgie side. Not just defeated, but deservedly defeated. Because it was the Betfred Cup group stage the result almost went under the radar but don’t let that fool anyone. It was one of the club’s worst results. Pressure increased on Cathro’s position.
The fans don’t want the club to be a staging-post for players and coaches. They want people who are proud to represent the club, have respect in doing so. Not treating the club as a stepping stone.
Dunfermline Athletic at Tynecastle Park was a defining moment in his short, eventful and so far unsuccessful tenure as a head coach. A must-win.
What followed was another 90 minutes of football which confirms that, at this moment in time, Cathro is not cut-out for the magnitude of the Hearts job. Following Tuesday’s travesty the players needed to rally, to be inspired, but, under Cathro, Hearts never rise to the occasion, instead they cower as if the energy has been sucked from their bodies, Cathro delivering his team-talk as Mad World by Gary Jules plays in the background.
With Jamie Walker banished from the squad due to a loss of focus and drop in performance-level, something which can’t be disputed judging on his apathetic outings in the previous three cup games, the team lacked little creativity and guile. There was plenty of energy and long balls but at no point did Hearts look like the Premiership side, the team who passed the ball better, had a more robust structure, was Championship Dunfermline.
Cameroon’s Arnaud Djoum was anonymous, awaiting the next international get-together. Prince Buaben appeared to have a bout of colour-blindness, unable to locate a player in a maroon jersey. John Souttar was too easily beaten for both Dunfermline goals.
There have been few discernible moments since the Dundonian’s appointment that have given fans an iota of confidence. The consecutive victories over Rangers and Motherwell in February was nothing more than a blip. Thirty games, seven wins in 90 minutes. Two of those against Elgin and East Fife.
If Cathro wasn’t able to steer the team through a simple Betfred Cup group, what chance does he have in leading the team in four successive away games: Celtic, Kilmarnock, Rangers and Motherwell.
In the last 13 months Hearts have won five games away from home. Away form hasn’t been an issue unique to Cathro. It has been a malady that has seeped into the club’s foundations over a long period of time.
Progress is being made off the pitch but fans want to see that replicated on it. The team and management lack personality. Director of football Craig Levein appears to have largely cut off ties with fans, the football operation facing pertinent questions
It is remarkable that the club are set to break the 14,000 season-ticket barrier. They’ve been through the emotional-ringer during the Vladimir Romanov years, rallied to save the club with the help of Ann Budge and continued to dig deep to aid financially and follow loyally; paying for season tickets and commemorative tops, putting cash in a cow, buying plastic owls, and shelling out £20 for a pre-season friendly.
Frustration was building under Robbie Neilson. It built further under Cathro. But now it is anger and soon it will be a revolt. The fans don’t want the club to be a staging-post for players and coaches. They want people who are proud to represent the club, have respect in doing so. Not treating the club as a stepping stone.
They’ve watched apparent key signings come and go without anything tangible being delivered, a recruitment strategy that is hard to explain. Connor Sammon? Three-year-deal? Malauray Martin? Three-and-a-half-year-deal? The goalkeeper situation which has become a microcosm of the club’s on-field ills?
Since returning to the top-flight, each season has been finished before the end of February. Each season has witnessed a meek cup exit to Hibernian. Each season has been met with a new nadir. Losing to Maltese side Birkirkara, topped by defeat to Peterhead. Hearts fans, like all fans, are used to defeat. It is acceptable. But what isn’t acceptable is the manner.
The league season has yet to begin, the new stand yet to be finished but the club’s management, Budge and Levein, should know they have a crucial decision to make in the coming days. The appointment of Cathro wasn’t an experiment, after all this was a football coach being appointed as such. But it was a risk. One which has not paid off and is highly unlikely to do so.
There is an Italian adage which says the best managers are the ones who do the least damage. But what of the opposite?
Hearts fans will say they have had more than enough time finding out the answer to that question. If they have to suffer much longer the defining image of the opening of the new stand will be revolt rather than revelry.