While Hearts striker Bjorn Johnsen admits he was in the dark when Ian Cathro’s name was first linked with the job of Tynecastle manager, he brightened when he realised the Scot had developed his coaching skills alongside Nuno Santos. Cathro and Nuno worked together at Rio Ave, in Portugal – and in Spain with Valencia – before the former headed to Newcastle United and the latter took the helm at Porto.
That information dispelled any apprehensions and renders Cathro’s lack of top-level playing experience irrelevant, according to Johnsen, the Ladbrokes Premiership player of the month, who knew all about Nuno from his own spell in Portuguese football.
“Ian knows football, so whether he has played or not, we have to respect that,” Johnsen said. “We have to accept he knows what he is talking about. He maybe sees it from a different aspect. I don’t see football from the aspect of being in the stand, he does, and he might see stuff that I might not see and vice versa, so we are going to have to help him and he is going to have to help us.”
In his short time in Portugal, the American-born striker netted 16 goals in 31 games with Atletico, who were then a second-tier team based in the outskirts of Lisbon. His form attracted interest from Sporting CP and enticed an offer from Benfica. The big move did not materialise, but he still appreciates the merits of the game there and is looking forward to seeing that reflected in the style of Cathro’s training and match tactics.
“When you guys put out who he was, obviously we read about him. Once we knew he had worked with Nuno and at Valencia as well, these are huge clubs and clubs we all want to play at, so we have to learn from him whether he has played football or not.
“I know of Nuno very well, but I didn’t know Ian. I had no idea that he had actually worked under Nuno, who is a great coach. Ian will have learned a lot from him. You can see that on the training pitch. The things he wants to do, in terms of possession, are from countries like Portugal, so I feel comfortable. I like his training.”
Taking charge of his first Premiership match on Saturday, the new manager’s trip to Ibrox ended in a 2-0 defeat.
But Johnsen says that is down to the players not rising to the standards they reached when they defeated Rangers at home last month. Hearts’ away form is a problem that has become extremely evident. According to the 25-year-old, much of that is a consequence of an altered mentality and the way the team tackle an away fixture compared to the swagger they play with at Tynecastle.
“He [Cathro] knows our away form is not so good, so he may have to change a few things to sort that. In terms of big changes and getting his thought processes over, he’ll probably wait until January [the winter break] when we have proper time together and can have something like a little pre-season. You can’t change too much instantly because too much change is not good sometimes.”
But, after five away games without a win, something needs to change if Hearts are to achieve the second-place finish they crave. In a Jekyll-and-Hyde season, Johnsen believes it is possible for Hearts to reach second if they can conjure up the kind of display they mustered at home to Rangers, says Johnsen, but not if they consistently serve up more of the fare they have produced on the road.
“I don’t think it was just playing at Rangers, it is playing anywhere [away from home].” Highlighting key reasons why they boss games at Tynecastle but are less sure of a result when they leave that comfort zone, he said: “Everybody here in the stadium is pushing us to be better. Also, the way we come out on the pitch, we know what we want to do. We want to press high. We want to win the game right from the start. We want to score five. Sometimes, when you play away, you change because you just want to get a point or something like that. It’s not any reflection on the trainer or anyone like that, it’s just that we come into the game in a different way than we do at home. So we need to change that.”
Johnsen’s winning mentality and ambition are inherited from his father, who coached him as a kid and believes he should now be making the step up to the international stage. In Edinburgh recently for the wins over Motherwell and Rangers, Hasse Johnsen expressed his frustrations that Norway, his home country, had not already approached his son, who has dual nationality, having been born and raised in USA.
“I almost want the USA to call him up so that we can confirm that the Norwegian team coaches are totally clueless,” his father said on Twitter.
His son, although keen to make the step up for either Norway or USA, was being more diplomatic.
“I gave him a talking-to afterwards!” Johnsen junior said. “He has no idea. He’s new to it all. But publicity is always a good thing. At least he’s on my side. He is definitely emotional. He is just happy that I’m in a good situation.”