The continuity Hearts had been looking for when transitioning from one manager to the next may not come in the form of an internal promotion but if, as is looking increasingly likely, they bring Ian Cathro to the club, at least one player will know what to expect.
When the qualities and curriculum vitae of the Newcastle United assistant coach are discussed, a key component is the time he spent bringing through young players at his soccer school on Tayside, developing the likes of Ryan Gauld and John Souttar.
“When I was younger I always wanted to play with the ball and I think a lot of people were part of that,” explained Hearts defender Souttar who worked with Cathro at his academy and again at Dundee United when the coach moved to Tannadice. “I did come through the academy, which everyone knows, and every single part of my development has played a part in the player I am today.”
It was the arrival of such players, technically more advanced than their peers, that prompted the then Dundee United manager Craig Levein to take a closer look at the guy who had honed their young talent and devised the Box Soccer coaching model.
But, while 20-year-old Souttar, who has been a key first team player since joining Hearts from Tannadice in February, will feel more relaxed about retaining his slot under Cathro, he knows he will have to work hard to impress whoever comes in.
“As players we don’t know anything,” he said in the wake of Wednesday night’s victory over Rangers. It was a win that elevated Hearts into second place in the Premiership and proved the perfect parting gift for outgoing head coach Robbie Neilson and the ideal enticement for the new man coming in. “We just enjoyed the win and whatever speculation is going on outside the team we are just concentrated on what’s happening on the inside. But whatever manager comes in, I’ve had a lot of managers in my time, five already, so you just have to impress every manager whoever it is. We will see what happens in the future.”
But the departure of Neilson to MK Dons has been a blow to the lad who is eyeing full international honours one day. Recognising his potential, Hearts paid United a six-figure sum to tie him to the club until May 2019 and he says every day since has been an education under the club’s now former head coach.
“[Neilson] has done a lot. He took me when I was in a struggling team at Dundee United, when we weren’t doing the best, and he took a gamble on me and paid money for me and he has improved me a lot as a player; defensively, understanding the game and game knowledge, I’ve learned a lot from him. He has been brilliant for me.
“I think he has taught me so much. Every manager I have had has taught me something and I think the gaffer has taught me loads on the training ground, individual stuff and as a young centre half it has been brilliant that I have had him to coach me.”
But he has also been given the freedom to breathe as a player and to express himself. That ease on the ball comes from his early development at the Cathro Clinic but it is something that has been nurtured by others, including Neilson, he says.
“Yeah, that’s something I have always had in my time at United, that ability and willingness to take the ball out, but the gaffer has added that bit of steel to my game and I am always learning under the gaffer. Whoever comes in I will try to learn off them and make myself the best player I can and keep learning every single day and get better and better. I try to learn even one thing every training session and if I can keep learning then hopefully that will take me where I want to be.”
That attitude and his performances have captured the interest of many admirers. Derby County manager Steve McClaren, who initially took Cathro to Newcastle United as his assistant, was in the stands on Wednesday night. The primary target was Callum Paterson but he revealed that scouts had been mentioning other Hearts players and having cast his own eye over the team he listed the young centre back as one of those he had added to his wish list.
But the Tynecastle club are unlikely to be willing to countenance anything but an exceptional offer for Souttar at this stage. Instead he will fight to help Hearts in the fight for second place.
“[The win over Rangers] shows that this is a massive club to play for,” he says. “Nights like that are special so it’s a big club and I’m delighted to be here.
“If you look at [our performances against] the big teams; Celtic got a last-minute winner in that first game and I thought we were unlucky, we went to Pittodrie and drew 0-0, and that’s not a bad result, and then we’ve won here [against Rangers] and I think most people would have taken that at the start of the season.
“I thought we stuck to the game plan and worked hard from the front. Bjorn [Johnsen], Arnaud [Djoum], Don [Cowie], Perry [Kitchen] pressed and we squeezed right up and I thought that worked. Rangers are a top team so it is good for us to beat them 2-0.”