Afew days on and Ian Cathro was harbouring regrets. Not about joining Hearts, only about one of his comments on the day he did. Introduced to the media, he had tried to illustrate his desire to test boundaries and leave his comfort zone. He said that having been born in Dundee, from an early age he realised he did not want to see out his whole life in the City of Discovery, before ultimately dying there.
For him the realms of discovery extended far beyond the boundaries of a city bearing that moniker.
It wasn’t meant as an insult – he says he would have felt the same way regardless which town or city had been home – but he admits that he is not relishing the ticking off he expects from his grandfather.
In fact he values his homeland and the imbibing of what he considers predominantly Scottish traits. He may have honed his coaching skills overseas but having the determination and the drive to do so is, he believes, part of the Scottish mindset.
“We can be strong-minded people and I like that. But some Spanish guys are the same so traits can be shared. But I have nothing against Dundee – I’m very grateful for the environment in which I was born. One of the really good things about the Scottish nationality is that if somebody tells you you can’t have something,” he says pointing to a bottle on the table nearby, “you do this.” With that, he grabs the water, adding: “I think that’s a little bit part of our psyche and that’s a positive.”
The practical demonstrations are perhaps learned behaviour and a legacy of his life on the continent where he had travelled to further his knowledge but, with very few words of Portuguese or Spanish, had to rely heavily on less conventional ways of communicating his message.
Starting out in coaching in Scotland, he foresaw how difficult it could be for a young coach to break through and realised that it would be virtually impossible for one with no top-level playing experience to speak of and therefore on the outside of the old boys’ network looking in.
The rumpus kicked up by his appointment would suggest he had that right.
He recognised early on that a new path would need to be not only laid, but designed almost from scratch, if he was to find himself back in Scotland managing in the Premiership. That approach paid off, too, and the spell abroad allowed him to add to his personal and management traits. It wasn’t always easy but he hadn’t expected it to be and the cussed Scot within didn’t care.
“Because my first proper job was abroad I probably did two things at once – getting to see and feel what it was like to be in another culture and also what it was like to work with professional footballers.
“It slowed me down: I probably calmed down quite a bit and learned to think a bit better. You also learn how to have a conversation better when you can’t have that conversation! When language stops you, you learn how you can still converse and share ideas with people. That would be the main thing.”
He is now back in Scotland, but still some rhetoric baffles him. That the youngest man ever to take charge of a Scottish top-tier club has also never played at that level and only coached youths in this country has astounded some of the old guard, who seem to believe that the established hierarchical management policy is the only route to the top in the industry. Add to that Cathro’s relative dislike of footballing cliches and his early openness and he is being observed as some wacky inventor’s creation, a curiosity of sorts. He just laughs to himself, insisting that while others have described him as innovative and radical and made other such bold characterisations, he sees himself as a normal guy, simply getting on with a job he has spent, if not quite a lifetime, certainly a third of if, training for.
“It’s not right or wrong. It’s just each club having the right to their own feelings and their own decisions about what they want to do and who they want to lead it. I’m not a flag-bearer for young coaches. That’s not the case. I respect and understand the different qualities and experiences that people have through coming different ways and being at different stages in their careers and I fully appreciate that. And if I could have had that I would have loved it, but I didn’t.”
He isn’t daft, though, and knows that some people do view his appointment as experimental and that they will be scrutinising him and the results he delivers. But, he remains relaxed and, well, joyful. The only thing he seems to fear is his grandfather’s admonishment for his perceived slur on Dundee. The rest of the challenges that await only excite him. He has been getting out of bed easier in the dark mornings, he says, thrilled by the prospect of what each day presents him. There are short-term goals but there are also long-term plans.
How they will be delivered, time will tell. He doesn’t envisage a massive shake-up at Hearts, aware that he inherited a team that has been contesting positions at the top end of the table and improved year on year under his predecessor.
“If I could have played for ten years before becoming a coach I’d have loved it,” he says.“Some people might say it’s because I didn’t have the quality – but I’ll say it’s because I had a bad knee! I wasn’t in the environment when things were bad or in the changing room when it’s gone great. But I’ve now been there [as a first team coach with Rio Ave, Valencia and Newcastle United]. I’ve been in the stadiums all around for Champions League games. I’ve been in these places. So I’ve felt it in a different way.
“That was important to me, to give myself that type of experience. Now I can sit comfortably and say: ‘We’re fine, I’m ready’. It’s all been topped up and it continues to be topped up.”
That chance to finally step up might have happened elsewhere, in Portugal or Spain or maybe even in England but that wasn’t where it felt right. “It’s natural. Home is always home,” he says.
Caledonia was calling him and when people said he wasn’t the right man, the cussed Scot within was always going to take the job and try to prove them wrong. It’s something he has been doing for years.