Interview: Coach Ian Cathro on why he left Scotland for Portugal

Ian Cathro left Scotland to become assistant manager at Portuguese side Rio Grande
Ian Cathro left Scotland to become assistant manager at Portuguese side Rio Grande
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MARK Wotte accused him of not being committed, and Ian Cathro couldn’t agree more. The 26-year-old was back in Scotland this week after deciding to turn his back on the SFA and taking his undoubted coaching talents to a country more willing and able to match his ambitions.

Wotte, the SFA’s performance director, was quick to criticise the youngster for leaving to become assistant coach of Portuguese side Rio Ave earlier this year, questioning his commitment and saying he hadn’t been disappointed to lose him.

But despite Wotte’s protestations, the loss of one of Scotland’s brightest young coaching stars has prompted a period of introspection in the Scottish game.

The single biggest problem for Cathro was that he felt he would never get the chance to reach the very top if he stayed because the culture in Scottish football dictates that to become a manager, you must once have been a player. Having never kicked a ball professionally, it ruled Cathro out of ever leading a team. All of which conflicted with the path Cathro wanted to follow. He was regarded as the future of coaching in Scotland when he was first plucked from obscurity by Craig Levein, pictured inset. He had been working as a kids’ coach in Dundee when he was spotted by the then United boss, who quickly appointed him head of the Tannadice club’s youth academy at the age of just 22. He was then fast-tracked into the SFA and placed in charge of the regional performance school in Dundee.

Back in Scotland this week for a catch-up coaching session with many of the youngsters he had worked with at Dundee, Cathro agreed with Wotte’s comments on his commitment to the SFA cause.

He said: “It was not a reflection on the SFA coaching sessions. From my side of things it was entirely about me turning the page. The feeling was so strong inside of me. I felt that if I made the commitment then it would need to be a ten-year commitment because of what we were doing. It’s all or nothing and I knew I had to start the new chapter now or wait ten years and ten years seemed a long time.”

Originally not interested in the management side of the game, or even working with first-team players, he said his opinion had gradually changed as the youngsters he was working with grew up and his training had to evolve. But given an old boys network he says still exists in this country and the fact that there remains a reluctance to appoint a young manager and certainly not one without a playing pedigree, he feels Rio Ave was one of the few avenues open to him.

In Portugal, as part of a continental coaching team hand-picked for their credentials rather than their shared histories, he says he has the chance to prove himself. Full of self-belief, he is extremely focused. And having prompted some changes to the way youth football was coached in this country by embarrassing others into following his example, he hopes he can force a switch in the way people perceive our game and the abilities of those involved in it in the future.

“I just don’t think the opportunity would have come for me here. The only way I would find that sort of employment here is to leave, prove a success and then people here might start to open themselves up to it.

Cathro added: “In Portugal, the culture and the way the clubs are run from a coaching point of view, the way the technical teams are built, that suits me.

“It’s not like here where it’s the manager and the guy he played with 20 years ago. In Portugal, the idea of a technical team is to get the right people.

“None of us knew each other but basically Nuno [Espirito Santo Porto’s former Champions League winning goalkeeper and current Rio Ave head coach] identified what attributes he has, what was still required and then found the best guy for each of the other things and put us all together.”

Cathro is a big believer in stepping out of our comfort zone and testing ourselves. And he believes that he is not the only one who could graduate from the Dundee academy to the top European leagues. Back when Levein placed him at the helm of the Dundee United Academy he wanted it written into the targets that they would produce a world-class player by 2020. People just laughed.

“I think that is a problem. They don’t believe it because it doesn’t happen that much, but just because something doesn’t happen that much, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Or that it can’t happen. We have to really start believing these things are possible. I think, very possibly, there was a player among the group I had today who could be a World Player of the Year. He needs things to go his way, he needs circumstances to go for him, he needs to work, it needs the timing to be right but it could happen. But if everybody just keeps saying, ‘no, no, no, no,’ then we beat him before he even starts.”

He added: “At Rio we have 1,800 people who come to the games but we have lost a player to Real Madrid and there will be others who could move on to that level. The football is good. But only 1,800 people go. I think that while Portugal is a strong football country, it’s not as deep into the culture as it is here. It doesn’t quite mean as much as it does here and I didn’t really respect that enough until I saw the other side. But instead of questioning things constantly, let’s just all get behind it and do it.”

He says the encouraging thing is that things are more positive and proactive in Scotland and believes we are moving forward in our approach to coaching.

He said: “Craig made people look at what I was doing. I was just as good a coach before I went to Dundee United as I was after I went there but people didn’t know. He gave me a platform to really work and learn what the inside of a club is like. By giving me that opportunity it gave me the chance to build something.”