A look back at six matches which ended up defining Ian Cathro’s brief spell as Hearts head coach.
Partick Thistle (h) - 17 December, 2016
Cathro’s first game was a baptism of fire. Away to a Rangers side who had responded from losing to Hearts in Robbie Neilson’s final game, and were about to embark on the longest winning streak of their season, the new manager watched his side lose 2-0 after having the opening goal wrongly disallowed. It wasn’t the best of starts, but it was no disgrace.
His first home match, which immediately followed, brought a better platform with which to get his tenure off on the right foot. Hearts were still a force at Tynecastle and Partick Thistle had yet to go on the sustained period of form which would eventually propel them into the top six. A home win looked on the cards and that’s exactly how things played out in the first half as Hearts controlled the game and went into the dressing room 1-0 up. Then Cathro decided to change things about.
Conor Sammon was brought on in place of Prince Buaben and, a short time later, the team switched to a 4-4-2. The results were disastrous. Thistle, having equalised right after the restart, easily bettered the hosts for the remainder of the game. Only a number of excellent stops from goalkeeper Jack Hamilton stopped them losing the match.
Hibs away (a) - 22 February, 2017
If you were to pick one match to define the Ian Cathro era, it would surely be this one. Hearts went to Easter Road for a Scottish Cup fourth round replay and were thoroughly dominated by the hosts.
Tactically, the visitors were a complete mess. Cathro lined up the side in a 4-4-1-1 formation without any natural width in the midfield, which resulted in the team being too narrow and unable to perform their duties without almost literally tripping over one another.
It also left the full-backs isolated, with Lennard Sowah enduring a torrid time as he was continually roasted down the left by Martin Boyle. Hibs scored three but it could have been more, as Hearts meekly exited the competition to their greatest rivals for the second year in succession.
Partick Thistle (a) - 25 February, 2017
Cathro stated his desire to repay the supporters in the wake of the Easter Road debacle, but things only went from bad to worse following this trip to Firhill.
Injury to Aaron Hughes necessitated a shuffling of the pack in defence, so Faycal Rherras came back into the side following his stint away with Morocco at the African Cup of Nations. The left-back slotted into his natural role, while Lennard Sowah took up residence at centre-back. It was an odd move, particularly as actual real-life centre-half Krystian Nowak was playing in midfield, and so it proved. Sowah was at fault for both Hearts goals in a 2-0 defeat.
The match was also notable for Esmael Goncalves completely losing the head and getting himself sent off for two bookable offences, an outcome everyone could see coming except the manager.
Celtic home (h) - 2 April, 2017
For the first 25 minutes, it looked like Cathro had his tactics spot on when the champions-elect came to Tynecastle looking to wrap up the Ladbrokes Premiership crown.
Playing with a high-pressing, attacking 4-4-2 formation, Hearts were arguably the better side for the opening exchanges and had a couple of great chances to take the lead. But, in hindsight, it was a naive approach; a house of cards that would come crashing down when Celtic steadied themselves and began to pick their opponents apart, which is exactly what happened.
Exploiting the lack of a defensive midfielder to protect a weak back four, Celtic’s front two of Scott Sinclair and Patrick Roberts ran riot in a 5-0 victory.
St Johnstone (a) - 5 April, 2017
This match immediately followed the Celtic loss and highlighted Cathro’s resistance to selecting the same system for two games running.
Sure, the high-press, attacking outlook of the Celtic match was always the football equivalent of playing with fire, but why not retain the tactic for a fixture Hearts had more chance of winning? Though St Johnstone are no mugs, they were without two of their starting back four in Richard Foster and captain Steven Anderson, and their leading goalscorer from last season, Danny Swanson.
It would have been perfectly reasonable for Cathro to set the team up as he did against Celtic, tweak it in a couple of areas, and try to get some continuity going. Instead, Hearts played with a defensive-minded 3-4-3 formation which ended up being a 5-2-3 in practice.
His use of the front three was most bizarre. Of the three forwards, natural strikers Esmael Goncalves and Bjorn Johnsen started on the wings, while winger Jamie Walker was positioned in the No.9 role.
Hearts were completely outplayed and fortunate to only lose 1-0, while substitute Sam Nicholson was sent off for spitting at the linesman.
Dunfermline (h) - 29 July, 2017
The young head coach arrived at Hearts promising a passing gameplan which would look to control matches by keeping possession in the opposition’s half. His last match, this past weekend against Dunfermline, illustrated his inability to live up to those aims.
Against Championship opposition, at home, Hearts aimed long balls in the direction of Esmael Goncalves and new signing Kyle Lafferty.
It didn’t have the desired effect, as they drew 2-2 to exit the League Cup, and confirmed what many had already expected: things hadn’t improved in nine months and they were never going to.