11 things we learned from Hearts’ Meet the Management event

Ian Cathro and Austin MacPhee, along with a number of Hearts coaches, gave a presentation to fans in the Gorgie Suite on Monday evening. In attendance was Joel Sked, who gives his take on proceedings

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Ian Cathro and Austin MacPhee, along with a number of Hearts coaches, gave a presentation to fans in the Gorgie Suite on Monday evening. In attendance was Joel Sked, who gives his take on proceedings

Cathro fronts up

“I am standing here to take it, I want to take it.”

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Despite all the criticism, the questions, the probing and the interest, Ian Cathro has continued to front up. Twenty four hours after defeat to Aberdeen the Hearts head coach was facing a room full of disgruntled fans. Lesser managers, lesser characters may have found a way to have the evening cancelled.

At times, Cathro is to talking what roundabouts are to Livingston. He’s not as succinct as Austin MacPhee but what he tries to do is provide honesty. And he was honest in evaluating his time at the club.

When asked about a “reasonable time” to make a success of it, Cathro said, for him, that time has “already surpassed”. And he’s had to reassess and learn.

He spoke of preparing to take the step into management. His belief was always to take over at the club with a full pre-season ahead of him, but that went out the window when the opportunity presented itself at Hearts.

“I couldn’t not come here. It would have been the biggest mistake of my life (if I didn’t)... I think you can see someone sitting in front of you who is not going to get broken, and I tell you what, I’m not crumbling.”

Cathro is no revolutionary

The Hearts boss was unfairly painted by some as a Silicon Valley whizz-kid nerd here to reinvent football one spreadsheet and pie chart at a time. He professed to no such thing.

Nor is he an ‘experiment’ as some prominent voices in the media have labelled him. At the time of his appointment he was a football coach with five years’ experience at clubs in Portugal, Spain and England being handed his first role as a head coach.

He presented his footballing ethos and there was nothing complex or revolutionary about it. It is a simplistic, idealistic model which focuses on four key areas: wanting the ball and building up to play; to stay, dominate and take risks in the opponent’s half; to press aggressively when the ball is lost; and to defend pro-actively with a high line.

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If it comes to fruition it’ll have Tynecastle rocking to cheers rather than jeers.

Live by the sword, die by the sword

“There is nothing that can happen that can rock my belief in us doing what we are going to do and it being the right thing for this club to progress.”

The phrase ‘doth protest too much’ comes to mind, yet Cathro seems to have a mantra. One which means he is not for shifting. The coach will live and die by his sword. The sword in this case is his football model.

The 30-year-old used Newcastle as an example. In the season they were relegated they changed what they believed in, and opted for another route to their destination but ended up getting lost. That won’t happen at Tynecastle. Cathro believes in himself and how he sees football being played.

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They ‘get it’

Said by assistant Austin MacPhee: “We want to find the right players on the sides of the pitch that not only excite you when they run down them but there is somebody in the box to head the ball in the goal. And they also have the capacity to defend the way we want to defend, which is high, which is aggressive, which is keeping them in their half.

“When they receive the ball you know they are going to be robust. They are going to be Hearts players. They are going to go into tackles that bring everyone to their feet. Because those things are important and they are a key identity to the club.

“The hurt in the Hibs defeat and the manner of the defeat has not been lost on us. It has not been lost on us. That lack of fight that was shown there has not been lost on our recruitment process.

“We need to make sure the team has an identity.

“If Plan A is not going well, Plan B is being robust enough not to lose a goal. Easter Road, Plan A is not going well, we weren’t robust enough to lose a goal in a derby in that way. There is an element there of knowing the league, knowing the country, knowing the environment and being equipped for that.

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“It’s very important that core, that identity, that six, seven out of ten, will header out the box, stop the shot, foul at the right time, know the league, win the derby. It’s important that is in our team and we want to add that in the summer.”

Changes are coming

One area emphasised time and time again was recruitment. The management DO realise it wasn’t good enough in January. There will be changes. Players will leave and players will depart.

The management team are looking to strengthen the centre of midfield and the centre of defence. They want more options on the flank and certainly another forward.

It led to a moment which brought a collective question from the floor: “GOALKEEPER?!?!”

As uncertain as Jack Hamilton’s goalkeeping against Aberdeen, there was no definitive answer on that front.

Recruitment I

“It’s one area of the club we are trying to modernise, for the reasons all of you know, probably not enough of it has been good,” said MacPhee. “None of us are shying away from that; Ann Budge, Craig (Levein), myself, Ian. We’re looking to innovate with that. We’re trying to de-risk it.”

While he reiterated that the January window is a difficult time to re-shape a squad, MacPhee recognised that the club are striving to better themselves in that aspect. One example given was the injury to John Souttar in late January at Celtic Park. There were little to no contingency plan in place.

Players will be watched more often and by more people.

The club have recently had a presentation from Brentford, one of the most innovative recruiters in world football, and will have others from both Manchester City and Manchester United.

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They want to gain an edge, to be ahead of Aberdeen, Celtic and Hibs for players. They want to learn, improve and make the structure more robust.

Recruitment II

There has been calls for, a want of a better phrase, more Britishness in the team. The management team understand and recognise the equilibrium is not correct within the squad. Cathro had said in an interview at the weekend that there will be a focus on the British market.

One fan, however, made the point that foreign players have done extremely well at Tynecastle and are much-loved, fearful that the club will be cutting of its nose to spite their face.

Cathro stated that their recruitment is ruling out no one but there will be an emphasis on players who have experience of Scottish or English football.


Another criticism thrown at the club of late is the lack of young talent from the academy emerging. This is somewhat harsh considering the likes of Rory Currie and Liam Smith joined a core of players already in the squad who emerged from the system.

There has also been a lack of understanding from such critics. Dig a little deeper and they will discover that because of mismanagement by the previous owner the academy had been neglected and required a complete revamp, a task which has been undertaken expansively by academy director Roger Arnott and director of football Craig Levein.

Players have had to be recruited from far and wide to plug holes and supplement a skeleton squad. However, the club took in its largest single intake of academy graduates. Those eight are seen as the next crop, the future.

There is big hopes for them and the club are pushing them, having moved players on deemed not good enough to open space for them to get minutes playing in the under-20s.

Goncalves will be a star

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Both Cathro and MacPhee were lavish in their praise of Esmael Goncalves despite concerns from the audience about his erratic finishing and tendency to drift to the periphery of games. His lifestyle and dedication to his craft was enthused by MacPhee as was his personality.

“A Tynecastle crowd can finish a striker. That person needs to be a robust, confident boy.”

Cathro believes within six months he will be the name on the back of fans’ shirts and there is a desire to find striker who complements him.

Aaron Hughes was a fine catch

At the end of MacPhee’s presentation he was fulsome in his praise of Aaron Hughes. Yet it was clearly and simply stated he wasn’t the future of the football club. After all he’s 37 years old.

But he is here to help, educate and develop the future. His experience is there to rub off on the likes of John Souttar and Jack Hamilton, the latter he goes fishing with.

The star of the show...almost

The Q&A session brought one of the highlights of the evening, a moment when even MacPhee was upstaged. A young fan, barely in her teens maybe even younger, offered one of the most passionate, thought-provoking, analytical observations you will hear in a long time.

At first she was reading the question she had written down from the paper handed to her. It seemed that maybe a relative had persuaded her to ask their question. But she soon discarded the bit of paper and allowed not only her passion but inquisitive mind to take over.

“Where is the link up play? I watch Jamie Walker standing in the middle of the park with the ball and he can’t go forward,” she said. “We pass it back so much and we talk about ball possession but seriously there are no options to go forward and Isma’s on the wing. You get it up the park but who’s in the box? You can’t put a cross in, you’ve got to go back, back. So I’m asking where is the link-up play?”

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She wasn’t finished there. There were still more relevant points to come: “Our players are constantly talking about fighting back when we lose the ball, where is the spirit. Scottish football is physical. Look at Aberdeen they have physical players.”

You could hear, feel even, in her voice, the hurt of having to witness what she has witnessed in the last five months. What it means to her. But not only that, a question that had substance to it, something one or many of the media could learn something from.

As soon as she discarded her bit of paper, ears started to pick up on what she was saying, momentum grew and she was soon being cheered on and backed by those in the room. She was expressing what everyone else was feeling.

She had everyone behind her, until she queried why Bjorn Johnson wasn’t playing. A step too far for many.