SIXTEEN days since the domestic season kicked off, and just five days before the League campaign gets underway, and Scottish Football has its first managerial casualty of the 2017/18 season.
Ian Cathro, the 31 year old who built up an impressive CV as a coach with Dundee United, Valencia and Newcastle, was dismissed after just eight months as Hearts Head Coach, his first managerial role, following a dismal Betfred Cup campaign that saw them finish third behind Championship side Dunfermline and League Two part-timers Peterhead, who inflicted a shock 2-1 defeat for the Jam Tarts a week ago.
Saturday’s penalty shootout defeat to the Pars at Tynecastle, which followed a 2-2 draw where the hosts were fortunate not to lose, and the subsequent jeers from the Hearts supporters was the final straw for Ann Budge and Craig Levein to wield the axe on Cathro, who agreed a three and a half year deal in December to succeed Robbie Neilson.
Cathro took over a side sitting second in the Premiership table having beaten Rangers 2-0 in Neilson’s last match before heading south to MK Dons. His appointment was controversial given his lack of experience as a manager, with some pundits like Jamie Fullerton and Kris Boyd going over the top in their criticism in dismissing him as a “laptop manager”.
However, he has overseen a dismal 30 game reign where Hearts only won seven matches in all competitions, dropped from second to a distant fifth and their League form under his tenure was the worst in the League, even below relegated Inverness Caledonian Thistle. In addition, the team exited the Scottish Cup to arch rivals Hibs with a timid display having featured eight out of nine new signings brought into the club in January, of which only three remain. Throw in the half time dispute with striker Bjorn Johnsen against St Johnstone, who’s since left the club, and Cathro’s uncertainty in his media dealings, and there isn’t much of an argument to support the case for him to remain.
The only surprise was the timing in that it happened so soon before the start of the season, although the SFF Podcast host John did say on 31 July that he’d be lucky to survive August! Having given Cathro the chance to bring in six new players, including experienced duo Christophe Berra and Kyle Lafferty, the thoughts were that the Hearts board would give him the chance to put things right.
However, with the redevelopment of the Main Stand at Tynecastle meaning Hearts start with four away matches before they host Aberdeen in September, the worry is that Hearts will continue their slide under Ian Cathro. Therefore the board had to make a decision now so that the new Head Coach or Manager has enough time to get their players in and build confidence so they don’t fall behind as they challenge for European places, something that looked impossible under the now previous Head Coach.
So with Cathro gone, the two questions are simple. Who do Hearts appoint as his successor? Will they ditch the Head Coach model and revert back to the old style Manager role?
Regarding the former, that all depends on one man – Craig Levein. He has full control of the football department and introduced the setup where the plan was that the Assistant Manager would step up when the Head Coach moves on. That didn’t quite happen as Neilson took his number two, Stevie Crawford, with him to MK Dons and another Coach, Jack Ross, had already left to pursue management opportunities elsewhere.
It’s unlikely that Austin McPhee, Cathro’s right hand man, will be stepping into the breach so Levein will need to bring in a man willing to come to the club knowing that they don’t have the final say on transfers and put up with the occasional interference, like Cathro famously suffered at Pittodrie only for him to say it was “normal”.
The usual ex-player link has surfaced in the aftermath of Cathro’s sacking, with Paul Hartley and Steven Presley high on the wish list of some supporters with former coach Peter Houston also being linked with a return to Tynecastle. Outside of that, Tommy Wright, one of the most underestimated managers in British football, is a name that a lot of Hearts fans would take to rebuild the reputation of their proud club.
Will any of these managers work under a Director of Football? Given their reputations as managers, it would be difficult for any of them to work in this set up, even Houston who was a former assistant to Levein at Hearts, Dundee United and Scotland before becoming his own man. More to the point, it’s unlikely that the former Scotland boss would want to have someone who would challenge his own authority.
One thing Hearts can ill afford is to appoint another unproven manager. Whilst it can be argued that Robbie Neilson was a success, he was a man who knew the club and built them up from the Championship, whereas Cathro was a risk that didn’t pay off and had no authority in the dressing room. That’s something that his successor has to address if he is to have any chance of succeeding at the club.
It’s also unlikely that Levein himself will tempt himself back into the managerial hot seat. After his abysmal reign as the National team manager, he appears quite content lurking in the background dodging the media and overseeing the football side of the club from the comfort of the directors box at Tynecastle.
Levein’s own role has also been questioned over the whole affair and whether Budge should consider his position. The difficulty in that is that Levein has shares in the club and she openly said that she appointed him to deal with the football department whilst she sorts out the business side of things. What Levein will need to do is not interfere publicly, as emphasised at Pittodrie in March, and allow the Head Coach or Manager, whatever title is given, to flourish in their role and offer assistance away from match day.
Whoever Craig Levein does appoint will be under scrutiny to ensure that the club halts this alarming slump that’s occurred over the last eight months, steady the ship and get the club fighting for European places in the League.
With the new stand due to open soon, which will take the capacity to more than 20,000, things are looking up for Hearts after the Romanov years that took the club into administration.
What the club need now is a Head Coach who can take them forward where it matters most and put the disasterous Ian Cathro reign firmly behind them.