Why Hearts managerial target chose foreign path to top

Tempted by an offer to become Hearts' development coach when Craig Levein approached him in 2014, Ian Cathro instead opted to continue his coaching education abroad. But now the Tynecastle club look to have finally provided a big enough enticement, with the former Dundee United youth academy coach apparently primed and ready to replace Robbie Neilson as first-team boss.
Ian Cathro, pictured during his time as Valencia assistant coach, is favourite to take over as Hearts head coach.  Picture: Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/GettyIan Cathro, pictured during his time as Valencia assistant coach, is favourite to take over as Hearts head coach.  Picture: Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty
Ian Cathro, pictured during his time as Valencia assistant coach, is favourite to take over as Hearts head coach. Picture: Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty

The 30-year-old will become the youngest Scottish top-flight boss ever if, as anticipated, he is unveiled as Neilson’s successor. Although in the dugout last night, Neilson, who guided Hearts to promotion from the Championship in his first season in charge and then followed that with a third-place finish in the Gorgie side’s first term back in the Premiership, is set to make the move from the capital to Milton Keynes, in the hope he can make a name for himself in the English game.

Several names have been touted as possible replacements but, keen to stick with the plan of developing young coaches and establishing a strong coaching pathway, only a few met the criteria. The most obvious of all was Cathro, who developed the Box Soccer coaching concept utilised by the Tynecastle club’s youth teams as well as many other clubs.

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His vision and coaching ideas first attracted the attention of Hearts’ director of football Levein when the pair worked in Dundee. Cathro was coaching youngsters and Levein, who was manager at Dundee United, was noticing the results. Having signed him up as a Tannadice youth academy coach, aged just 22, the pair also worked together when Cathro was placed in charge of the SFA’s regional performance school in the city while Levein was national boss.

But Cathro quit in 2012, leaving to become assistant coach of Portuguese side Rio Ave, alongside current Porto boss Nuno Santo. Explaining that decision, Cathro said that he felt he had to turn the page, aware that the culture in the Scottish game, in particular, meant that if he ever wanted to ascend the managerial ladder, the lack of a professional playing career in his back 
story would necessitate a more circuitous path.

Originally not interested in the management side of the game, or even working with first-team players, his opinion gradually changed as the youngsters he was working with, including Ryan Gauld and Hearts’ defender John Souttar, grew up and his training had to evolve. But adamant that an old boys’ network still prevailed in this country and of the view that clubs were reluctant to appoint a young manager at that time, especially one without a playing pedigree, he claimed that heading overseas was his only hope.

Speaking later that year, he said: “I just don’t think the opportunity would have come for me here. The only way I would find that sort of employment here is to leave, prove a success and then people here might start to open themselves up to it. In Portugal, the culture and the way the clubs are run from a coaching point of view, the way the technical teams are built, that suits me.

“It’s not like here where it’s the manager and the guy he played with 20 years ago. In Portugal, the idea of a technical team is to get the right people.”

After Portugal, and having rejected that initial advance from Hearts, Cathro followed Santo, who he had first met and impressed on a coaching course, to La Liga, as a member of the Valencia backroom staff. That only ended when Cathro swapped the sunshine of Spain for a fresh challenge in England in 2015.

Brought to Newcastle United by Steve McLaren, pictured, he was kept on as an assistant coach after the Englishman was sacked, with Rafa Benitez speaking warmly of the Scot’s references and his coaching credentials and grateful to have another Spanish speaker on the staff.

But it is understood that the Magpies will not stand in Cathro’s way if, as anticipated, Neilson leaves and a swift, official approach is subsequently made for the coaching starlet.

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He’s a young man but he has a cv that shows a varied and impressive journey to where he stands now, on the verge of taking over the Hearts first team.

That experience offers him the credibility lacking in his playing career. The fact Cathro had the foresight to see that is laudable. But it is what he does now that he has the opportunity to lead at the top that will be the real curiosity.