For now, the backing is unwavering but Hearts’ director of football has conceded that a poor start to the new campaign would lead to a review of manager Ian Cathro’s position.
Craig Levein has admitted that, after a difficult beginning to his Tynecastle career, the club’s rookie boss does need to get off to a positive start next season, but he is backing him to do just that, saying that, despite a return of just six wins from his first 26 games in charge, he has never doubted his decision to appoint the former Newcastle and Valencia coach.
“There is no point in forecasting. We just have to see how it goes, but I have every faith in him and Ann [Budge, the club chairwoman] has every faith in him.”
In the six months since his arrival in Gorgie, pressure has been mounting on the manager and the man who recruited him. The team slipped from second in the table in November to a fifth-placed finish, missing out on Europe and exiting the Scottish Cup for the second year in succession at the hands of city rivals Hibernian.
But Levein has called for some perspective, saying that, while fifth place is not acceptable, it is hardly a freak occurance.
“Although we are not happy with it, if you look through the years since the restructure of the leagues, we’ve probably finished fifth more than any other position. It’s not acceptable and this season we would have had the fourth biggest budget, so we are not happy with being one place worse than that. But this season, with Ian learning what he needed to learn, will be very valuable.”
He expects a different run of results next term. Banking on Cathro adapting to life in a Scottish dugout, Levein also believes the manager will be aided by a more suitable batch of squad recruits. Admitting to mistakes in the past couple of transfer windows, the football department have moved to redress those mistakes and pinpoint British-based players with a greater understanding of the game in this country.
But, if that does not work, then Levein and Budge will be faced with some difficult decisions.
“If we start next season poorly, although I don’t want to speculate on that, then we’ll look at things again.” But faced with several “what-if” scenarios he said that he could pose one of his own.
“What if we win our first 10 matches? A ‘what if’ is a ‘what if’. Your ‘what if’ is the same as my ‘what if’? Mine is just as valid.
“I get where you’re coming from. We understand. I review what’s going on constantly with everybody at the club. The facts are that Ian’s record since he arrived at the club is pretty much the same as mine after I arrived. If we’re going to appoint a young coach, we need to give him time to learn.”
In his first season as manager, back in 2000/01 he came in midway through a campaign just like Cathro and Hearts finished fifth. It was the same the following season before he delivered two consecutive top-three finishes to catch the eye of Leicester City, who lured him south. He said that proves what can happen if people show a little patience and allow young managers to find their feet.
“When you make a decision about staff you’ve got to back people. We go through a long process before we decide who gets the job and the reasons for Ian haven’t changed. Being the Hearts manager isn’t an easy job. People say ‘well, it should be an experienced manager’s job’. But, as a club, we haven’t lost many managers to bigger clubs, or sold a manager, other than myself and Robbie Neilson [Cathro’s predecessor]. I was a kid when I was here and Robbie was a kid when he was here. We’ve had a lot of managers here, a lot of them experienced, and not one of them has been poached by another club other than Robbie and myself. That tells you a story.
“I really do believe that the job now requires a hell of a lot of energy and it also requires you to understand the modern-day player. Ian understands the modern-day player, Robbie understood the modern-day player. I think the older you get the further you get away from what the players are like.”
That said, he claims everything is constantly under review. “Players, coaches, everything. But I see it fairly simply, and as much as [Ian is] Scottish, he’s never been on the touchline in Scotland – other than at Hearts.
“Every league has its way of playing. Scottish football has this kind of unique way of playing. If you look outside the Old Firm, every team plays the same way. Aberdeen are the best at it, but they all play the same way. They go forward quickly, it comes back into midfield, second balls, it goes wide, it goes in the box and then they recycle it.
“If you can’t deal with that constant bombardment and pressure, either from direct balls or crosses, then you lose goals. We’ve played some matches this season where I think we’ve been fantastic but we got beat.”
Which is where Cathro has had to learn to adapt, according to the man who speaks with him every day and is on hand to offer advice but insists that Cathro is his own man when it comes to tactics and the team.
“I think Ian’s philosophy at the start was ‘we’ll be better than everyone else, we’ll score more than everyone else’. But he’s very quickly realised that if we don’t deal with what other people can do then we can’t impose ourselves in games. For me, the attraction of Ian is, once we get beyond that and we are defending these situations, I get excited about the possibilities. I watch him in training, the players are buying into what he’s doing.
“It’s quite difficult to gain momentum if you lose matches. It’s a kick in the b*****ks when you lose a game, but once he gets this bit organised, then the rest, I’m sure, will follow.”