Alan Pattullo: Ian Cathro a fine coach who toiled as manager

Ian Cathro has left Hearts after seven months. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS
Ian Cathro has left Hearts after seven months. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS
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It doesn’t all come down to the matter of a simple handshake. But the complaint from Jim McInally that he hadn’t even offered this courtesy after Hearts fell to a 2-1 defeat at Peterhead last month was another instructive glimpse into the world of Ian Cathro.

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A gifted coach, he remained uncomfortable with some of the other – what he might rightly call superficial – demands of management. McInally chose to go public with his feelings. The many others who felt similarly slighted by Cathro’s socially awkward ways did not.

It shouldn’t matter. But in a work environment such as professional football, where it’s vital to project yourself, an inability to come across as gregarious and inspirational tends to hamper progress. When compounded by poor results, it quickly becomes damaging to career prospects – as yesterday proved.

With the players off as usual on Monday, Cathro was at Wolverhampton Wanderers. He was either discussing potential player loan deals with Nuno Espirito Santo, with whom he worked at Rio Ave and Valencia, or else he was preparing the way to move smoothly back into a coaching position on the backroom staff. It’s a role for which some feel he is best suited.

Sadly for those who willed him to be a success at Hearts, this may well be true. On his return to Hearts yesterday morning, Cathro was informed he was being relieved of his duties.

Amid deftly articulated expressions of concern about Hearts’ form and an eyebrow-raising admission he felt ashamed to walk the streets of Edinburgh, skipper Christophe Berra stopped short of offering Cathro a ringing endorsement at an event to preview the new league season on Monday.

But there has never been much debate over whether Cathro is a good coach. There have been no reports of incompetence on the training pitch. He just wasn’t able to present himself the way a manager – or head coach – must in order to get the backing of players and warrant further patience from the club hierarchy.

Even though it came just a week before the start of the new league season, last Saturday’s deflating 2-2 draw with Dunfermline which confirmed Hearts’ elimination from the Betfred Cup was the last straw.

The players’ absence from Riccarton on Monday offered a window of opportunity as Hearts directors dealt with the practicalities of detaching themselves from a head coach they had desperately hoped would become some kind of trailblazer.

Never mind being offered the start of the season to try to turn things round. Cathro hasn’t even been given a single day in August. There is a stand to be finished building and now a new manager to be found.

Little wonder there has been no idle talk.

The silence since Saturday was broken in a short, three-paragraph statement. It reported that Craig Levein, the director of football, had confirmed Cathro’s departure.

There was no direct quote from Levein aside from a bland: “We wish Ian well for the future”.

Strangely, as if dripping information to the fans who have bought 14,000 season tickets was somehow commendable, another statement, relating to the management plans for Saturday’s trip to Celtic Park, was promised in 24 hours’ time. The board, stressed this statement, had made the decision “reluctantly”.

Levein, for one, staked so much of his credibility on Cathro succeeding. He must feel the regret at how things have worked out very deeply indeed. It was just two months ago, towards the end of May, when he fronted a press conference designed to review the season just gone.

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This has become something of a tradition for Levein, who shies away from press interaction most other times. He was still sounding supportive of his man.

Despite continuing speculation about interference from above, Levein has tended to give Cathro space. He very deliberately chose not to sit beside his young prodigy at a hastily-convened unveiling press conference in December. Owner Ann Budge handled the task of introducing Cathro and assistant Austin MacPhee to reporters

Many assumed, wrongly, that the two up and coming coaches, both in their thirties, were fast friends. It was an easy assumption to make. Hailing from the east of Scotland, Dundee in Cathro’s case, Fife in MacPhee’s, they’d both earned their spurs running football academies in these areas.

But they’d barely spoken before being presented as a dream team. At the time MacPhee was being courted by the Scottish Football Association. The 37-year-old was heading the governing body’s list of candidates to become performance director.

MacPhee chose Hearts, swayed by day-to-day involvement with a club and regular match action.

It would be deeply regrettable if he was to have his progress in the game interrupted by an association with Cathro, who was himself badly served by circumstances from the off. His first match in charge was away to Rangers, his second at home to a solid Partick Thistle side.

In his third, away to Dundee, Hearts threatened to blow the hosts away, quickly asserting a 2-0 lead. Was this the first sign of poor game management by Cathro? Hearts ended up losing 3-2, their performance affected by an injury to the influential Don Cowie, who was rushed to hospital with a neck injury near the start of the second half.

More serious injuries later befell Callum Paterson and John Souttar, two players good enough to mean their loss had a profound effect.

The closest Cathro came to gathering a head of steam was successive, comprehensive victories over Rangers and Motherwell in February. The next two league victories felt like temporary ports in a sea of troubles. The wins over Hamilton and Dundee, his only other two in the league, were four weeks apart, the first five games after the 3-0 away win versus Motherwell and the latter six winless games prior to the end of the league campaign.

There was never any momentum.

Castigated for such seemingly normal behaviour as passing notes to players, something seen in games most weekends all around the country, Cathro quickly learned that anything he did was fair game for his critics. But he was unable to issue any kind of stiff defence. Amid a bewildering number of player comings and goings, there was no evidence of improvement.

But while there were clearly serious reservations forming, he would almost certainly still be in charge if not for a last-minute defeat by Peterhead and an admittedly catastrophic failure to beat Dunfermline at home. In the end it came down to one crucial factor: results.

It is the ultimate litmus test for managers, whatever their age and however comfortable they are, or are not, in front of television cameras.

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