It is a tricky question for any manager. Asked if his team can challenge for a title that has been hogged by Celtic and Rangers over the years, an answer in the negative can infuriate fans who accuse their club of a lack of ambition, while an affirmative response can leave the poor guy exposed to all kinds of comebacks.
Such matters don’t worry Ian Cathro, though. This is a guy who has done things his own way up until now and is unlikely to start conforming for the sake of it now.
If there is a glass ceiling, he may yet hit it but it won’t be a gentle dunt. Hearts’ new head coach intends to career into it with all the power he possesses in the hope he can defy the odds and the well-established perceptions of others and smash through it.
“I don’t think it’s something to really put words against. The only point I’m sitting here with in my mind is ‘let’s not say no to anything’. We don’t really know where bars are. I don’t want people to be living with the idea that you get to there and that’s it,” he said raising a hand to signal a preordained height, “because then you actually don’t go as hard all the way there any more because you think ‘well, I’m going to hit the roof anyway so I’ll go a wee bit slower and take my time’. No. Don’t. We don’t know where it is. It might be there, it might not. It might be somewhere else. The point is to go in search of where our limit is and not be trapped by anything that’s just historical.”
Limits are something Hearts’ new manager has never placed on himself. They are, in fact, something he has spent his life rebelling against.
From his days growing up in Dundee he never wanted to restrict himself or the possibilities he believes are available to anyone who keeps striving for them. “There isn’t a limit to what you can do unless you believe in the limits everybody else has set,” he said. “I don’t live with those limits in my mind. There’s space to grow.”
Which is why he left Scotland and his role as an SFA academy director to test himself abroad. Denied membership of the Scottish football’s old boys’ network due to his paucity of professional playing credentials, he was smart enough to recognise that another route was needed and determined enough to set off for Portugal with plenty of ambition and enthusiasm but not a word of the language. He accepted the offer of a coaching role at Rio Ave from Nuno Santos, who had obviously been more impressed than the critical Kris Boyd by Cathro’s performance at a Largs coaching course. Describing the current Porto manager as his biggest influence, he then followed him to Valencia before returning to the UK, to Newcastle United, as Steve McClaren’s assistant manager.
It was all a way of testing out innovative ideas, pushing boundaries and preparing himself for the day that a management opportunity presented itself.
“I don’t think I really have [encountered resistance] from players. Certainly in Portugal that was never the case. There was never an issue, and Valencia was the same,” he added.
“I want to explain things and have conversations about football. It is part of the process. In any dressing room, you have players who have come from different backgrounds, with different youth development and different concepts. You talk to a Dutch player who wants to go man-to-man and press, you go to an older British lad who wants to be on the edge of his box. Then you might have a Spanish lad who wants to control space. You have those things going on and you need to be able to take them and say ‘this is what we are doing and why’. It breaks down if there is no collective clarity.”
Candid and engaging, Cathro is also seriously focused and rather than betraying signs of weakness, his willingness to talk about wanting support and the value he places on the collective, shows self-assurance. He described his development as a coach and manager as ongoing but insisted there is no glaring voids.
“I want all the pieces to be bigger and brighter and more polished and stronger, but I’m not sitting here as someone who’s got a piece missing,” he said. “I’m not faulty goods. Like everyone, I’m just going to grow. That’s one of the reasons for stepping up to do this. You reach a point where maybe you stop growing in your existing environment. I don’t like that. I like growing. I like improving. I like challenge.”
In the people he has around him at Hearts he sees kindred spirits. His assistant Austin MacPhee is another who has trodden an unorthodox path. Together they are an untried partnership but they see ways they can complement each other and they are both assured by the presence of Craig Levein, pictured, as director of football and the forward thinking approach of owner Ann Budge.
So much of the work going forward will be a collective process but he knows the buck stops with him. “I’ve always done the work,” Cathro said. “I’ve just been handing it over before. I’m now the person who makes all the decisions all of the time. I need to get us efficient, together and strong “
If he succeeds, then, together, he believes there are no limits to what can be achieved.