Why it’s still wrong to say Kris Boyd was right about Ian Cathro

Ian Cathro has left Hearts following a terrible start to the 2017/18 season. Picture: SNS
Ian Cathro has left Hearts following a terrible start to the 2017/18 season. Picture: SNS
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The ex-Rangers striker believed Ian Cathro would fail because of lack of man-management skills, but it was an altogether different flaw which doomed the head coach at Hearts, as Craig Fowler writes.

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There was quite the backlash when Kris Boyd, through a newspaper column, said Ian Cathro would be a failure as Hearts boss before a ball was even kicked. And yet here we are, not yet nine months on, and Cathro is already out the door at Tynecastle.

An unremitting failure as Hearts manager, the 31-year-old was given the boot five days before the new league season started, as an embarrassing Betfred Cup campaign was enough to convince the Hearts board he wasn’t the right man for the job. Boyd called it, and today he has been proven right.

Or so some would have you believe. The crux of Boyd’s argument was that Cathro would struggle because he was a laptop manager, capable of designing spreadsheets and power-point presentations but incapable of talking to footballers. Apparently, the incoming boss had no experience of dressing rooms (a point later debunked) in part because he had no experience of playing the game.

Seeing as Cathro has now undeniably failed at Hearts, observers are pointing to Boyd’s article and saying he was right all along. Cathro had great ideas on how to set up his team, but the players wouldn’t play for him.

Sorry, I don’t buy it, and for several reasons.

Full disclosure, this writer has no idea whether Cathro was any good at speaking to players. He might have been lacking in that department. We might soon be regaled with tales of a social recluse skulking around the rooms at Riccarton, refusing to even look at players let alone talk to them, alienating anyone who dared to interrupt his game of minesweeper.

Some players wouldn’t have thought much of Cathro. You only have to look at Faycal Rherras’ Twitter feed to know that. But that’s natural at any football club. If the team is losing and you’re not getting a game, you’re not going to like the manager. Then there were the ex-players who have been effusive in their praise. Tony Watt, despite having been quickly shown the door at Hearts following Cathro’s arrival, refused to say anything negative about him and even contradicted a few myths.

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Watt said: “It’s Ian’s first job and despite people talking about his man-management skills he knew how to get into someone’s head. He had a good way of taking people to the side to tell them they were doing it or not doing it. He’s only 30 but his age doesn’t matter. It’s not about age – it’s about respect. I didn’t start a game under Ian but I honestly couldn’t speak more highly of him.”

Meanwhile, Matt Ritchie, who worked with Cathro at Newcastle, told the Scottish Sun: “I worked with him on a daily basis at Newcastle on the training pitch, so I don’t know where the idea comes from that he was some sort of video analyst, locked away in a dark room. That’s just nonsense. He was a first-team coach who obviously loved being out on the training pitch. His sessions were always obviously well thought out and he got his points across really well. Ian was also always heavily involved in the dressing-room, before games, at half-time and in the aftermath so it’s wrong to suggest otherwise. He would talk to the players on an individual basis or in small groups, and I know he gave me a few tips that came in handy, about how I could find more space and little details like that.”

Of course, players, especially active ones, are very rarely critical of managers. But by the same token, it’s unusual to go into such specifics if they’re making it all up (unless you’re Joe Miller). Usually they’ll just offer bland, basic platitudes when they’re trying to hide the truth: “He’s a good coach, I like working with him, everyone is fully behind him etc.” When specific details are used, it adds gravitas. Besides, are we really suggesting Tony Watt is someone who doesn’t speak his mind?

This article is not a defence of Cathro. He was the worst Hearts manager in recent history. This is just a rebuttal to the argument that he failed because he was a “laptop manager”.

He failed because Hearts were terrible at an aspect of football Cathro was supposed to be good at, something which we were all privy to: the tactics.

If you could imagine a scouting report on the manager prior to his arrival, you’d have thought “tactics” would have featured pretty high on a list of strengths, but there was little evidence of that down Gorgie way.

There were warning signs before the return fixture of Hearts’ Scottish Cup tie with rivals Hibernian. But it was that particular game which truly drove home the extent of his tactical inadequacies. Despite the first game, a 0-0 draw at Tynecastle, clearly demonstrating that Malaury Martin was unsuited to such a frenzied contest, Cathro stuck by the player for the replay. Shockingly, the same outcome occurred. Martin was too ponderous to perform in the red-hot intensity, and was hooked again at half-time.

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Martin was one of five (five!) centre-midfielders who started in the Hearts team that day. Jamie Walker and Arnaud Djoum took up residence on the wings, but continually drifted inside to their natural position. You could have draped a king-size duvet cover across the entire Hearts midfield, as those tasked with controlling the game continually tripped over each other. The only width came from Esmael Goncalves who, isolated in attack, performed his favourite party-trick by drifting over to the left wing for no apparent reason. It was a complete mess.

It wasn’t the only example: there was the attempt to out-punch Celtic at Tynecastle, which ended in a 5-0 defeat; the addition of Conor Sammon and a formation change, in a game they were winning, in the 1-1 home draw with Patrick Thistle; the playing of Jamie Walker as a centre forward in a front three that featured two actual strikers on the wings at McDiarmid Park, and the use of Lennard Sowah as a centre-back at Partick Thistle when there was an actual centre-back playing in midfield.

Even in Cathro’s last game on Saturday, the plan seemed to exclusively revolve around aiming long diagonals in the direction of Goncalves or long balls to the forehead of Kyle Lafferty. A manager who had arrived at Tynecastle preaching “control” of the game through dominating possession in the other team’s half decided the best tactic to better a Championship side, at home, was to have the defence shell the ball in the general direction of a tall striker playing on the wing.

Ultimately, Boyd’s prediction came true. He thought Cathro was going to be a failure and that was the end result. However, just because you predict the right outcome, doesn’t mean your evidence was flawless. You could have said 24 months ago that Donald Trump would be the next president of the United States, but if your reasoning was that he was perfect for the role because of his diplomacy, you’d still be wrong.

Maybe Cathro lacked the ability to motivate the side in the same way someone like Brian Clough, the master at manipulating a player’s emotions, would bring out the best in each and every member of his team. But there’s a massive difference between being one of the greatest managers of all time and being a complete failure in the Ladbrokes Premiership. There will be several managers, especially in today’s football, who won’t be great man-managers, but it won’t be the only reason they fail.

The biggest reason Cathro failed is because he failed to build a coherent, tactical gameplan and the team continually lacked structure and shape. That reason, more than any other, is why he’s no longer Hearts manager.

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