Ian Cathro was earmarked as the replacement for Robbie Neilson from the very start of Ann Budge’s reign at Hearts, according to Hearts Director of Football Craig Levein.
Speaking at the club’s annual meeting, the man responsible for putting in place the strategy for coaching development at the Tynecastle club said he had always viewed the former Dundee United youth coach as the ideal heir to the managerial throne and, while the plan had been to promote from within, he claimed the arrival of Cathro, from Newcastle United, was in keeping with his early ideas.
“In some ways he has come within because Ian was actually in the building two years ago and had accepted the under-20s job before the Valencia job came along, so he was actually the man we wanted to replace Robbie [promoted from the U20s to head coach]. The good thing for us is that, in that two years he has been to Valencia and Newcastle, he has learned a hell of a lot more than he would have done by staying here.
“I believe that the next time around – although, hopefully, Ian is with us for a while – we will be in a position to look at the guys working within the system just now. I just felt that it was just a little bit soon for Jon [Daly], Andy [Kirk] or Liam [Fox], who is out at Cowdenbeath. But our plan hasn’t changed on coaching or on developing players. It is just as firm as it was the day that Ann took over the club.”
Despite a trying start for Cathro, who has picked up one point from his first two games, Levein, pictured, said both he and Budge remained convinced that they had appointed a management team capable of building on the success of Neilson and his assistant, Stevie Crawford.
But he admitted that they had a hard act to follow. “For a young management team, Robbie’s first job, he did a remarkable job. I know how difficult it is to manage here. I had experience at Cowdenbeath before I came here but this is a tough place to manage. Expectations are high, rightly so, and when you consider it was his first managerial job I was really pleased with what he did. But Ian and Austin [MacPhee] have joined us and I am very confident that they will help us achieve the success we all want.”
He said that the early judgements made by pundits had surprised him, but he remains optimistic for the future, with the club ultimately aiming even higher than last season’s top-three finish in the Premiership.
“Ian is old enough – just barely – to tell you himself what he hopes to achieve. We discuss as a board where we think it is reasonable to budget in terms of where we could finish, but one of the reasons Ian is here is that he doesn’t have the same thoughts about what we can do as most people in Scotland.
“ That is the interesting thing. He needs the opportunity to bring his own players in and get them playing the way he wants.
“That’s when we can start moving towards what he was talking about at his first press conference. I think for the short term – this season – it’s realistic to talk about third or fourth place. Next season, if we manage to progress, then the season after that, then things start to look different.”
Money has already been freed up to allow him to make his own mark on the playing personnel. “We want to support Ian and there are some players we want to move out in January to create room for players to come in, and Ian has his own ideas. They are not too dissimilar to what Robbie was talking about. We don’t want to be silly and get ourselves back in the [financial] position we were in before, but we have to remember we are a football club.”
As a football entity, lessons are always being learned, according to Levein, who revealed that they would amend their approach to pre-season if, as hoped, they finish third and gain entry into Europa League qualifiers again. “We had six weeks in total between the season ending and the first match of this season and we decided we needed to give the players a month off, allow them to recuperate and relax and be fresh. That only gave us two weeks of preparation for the first match and I didn’t think we performed particularly well in all four of our European matches.
“The preparation wasn’t long enough. Also, a lot of our players had not experienced European football and the more you get into that position, you understand what it is about. It is so different to what you are used to in Scotland.”
It is hoped that having a man who has worked on the continent could aid that understanding and underline the merits of Cathro choosing Spain over the U20s when he had the choice.