Riccarton was severely neglected during the latter years of Vladimir Romanov’s Hearts stewardship, so it is refreshing to see the club’s new custodians so investing themselves in youth development.
Enlisting the Box Soccer Training programme is the latest move aimed at producing the best youngsters from within the Hearts academy.
Director of football Craig Levein believes Hearts should rear and recruit players and has brought in Ian Cathro’s creation to help. Box Soccer was developed by Cathro in his teens before he was given a prominent youth coaching role by Levein at Dundee United.
It teaches skills, technique, movement and quick thought inside a practice area of 24 metres by 24 metres. It will be rolled out to Riccarton youth players aged nine to 12 this season, thanks to sponsorship from ARC Scotland Ltd.
Ironically, Cathro came tantalisingly close to joining the Hearts coaching team last summer whilst with Rio Ave in Portugal. The 29-year-old Scot refused Levein’s advances and instead followed Rio Ave coach Nuno Santo to Valencia, before being appointed assistant to Steve McClaren at Newcastle United just last month. His career may never take him to Riccarton but his work will be prevalent there from now on.
Levein recognised the attention needed to improve Hearts’ academy coaching when he arrived last summer as part of Ann Budge’s takeover. A clutch of kids reached the first team early as a result of the club entering administration in 2013, but the long-term desire is to produce generation after generation. Jack Ross arrived as Under-20 manager, Roger Arnott became academy manager and even John Robertson was given a role coaching the under-17s. Bringing Box Soccer on board is the next part of the jigsaw.
“We’ve got some really good kids. We just want more of them. Instead of three or four of them playing in the first team, we want eight,” explained Levein. “That’s the ideal situation, to develop our own players. Yes, we have to supplement that with signings from elsewhere and senior players. In an ideal world we would hope to develop more than half of the team. We need to invest, work really hard and we’re very fortunate that ARC have sponsored this for us. So we have this collaboration between ourselves, the sponsors and Box Soccer. We’ve got really good players. We just want more.”
Former Hearts winger John Colquhoun now owns Box Soccer after buying the rights from Cathro. Levein and the Hearts coaching staff have devoted time and attention to create their own coaching programme for players aged 13 and above for 11-a-side football. The seven-a-side squads below them at Riccarton will use Box Soccer. Levein explained why it is an ideal fit for the younger kids.
“My introduction to Box Soccer was with Ian up at Dundee United,” he revealed. “When I went there as manager, I went to watch a kids game on a Sunday morning. I watched our team playing and there were four players in the team who were technically just miles ahead. So I made some enquiries about why these guys were so much better than the other players. I don’t think it was any coincidence these guys were in Ian’s coaching schools.
“He wrote the programme. I have said it before, but I think he is a genius when it comes to this type of thing. So he developed the Box Soccer programme and at the same time I invited him in to go full-time at Dundee United. The Box Soccer thing became part of what we were doing at Dundee United. I think his idea – to grow it and to roll it out UK-wide – took a back seat because he then started to become more involved in full-time football.
“I know John (Colquhoun) really well, and Ian is still involved. The position that we are in now with developing the academy it is just perfect for us. We spent about six months last year writing a programme; myself, Robbie, Stevie (Crawford), Jack, Roger and Robbo was involved. We wrote the 11-a-side programme. That is being rolled out just now. What we are going to do is use the Box Soccer programme for the seven-a-sides and I think the two will fit perfectly together.”
The idea is to create outstanding technical young footballers ready to move from seven-a-side football to 11-a-side by the age of 13. “These formative years up until the age of 12 are really important. The technical aspect is really important,” said Levein. “This Box Soccer programme has so many things in it. You could use it for kids from eight to 16, but specifically we want to condense it. By the time kids are 12 and ready to go and play 11-a-side football, they’ll understand some position-specific stuff as well. They’ll understand about one-on-ones, two-against-one, three-against-one and angles, the types of passes. There are so many things in there, that if we condense it the way we want to it’ll give them the best possible chance of being Heart of Midlothian first-team players.
“Of course, it’ll depend how good the kids are to begin with. The programme is only as good as the material fed into it at the bottom end. I’ve got high hopes and it’s another step forward for the academy. When we came in last year the important things were the first team, getting promoted and back in the Premiership. Ann’s plan for the club is more about what the club will be like in five years’ time. By then we want to have the best players possible and we’re never going to be able to buy them. So the only other way to do it is to develop them.”
So, how close did Cathro actually come to being in place to deliver his own coaching methods? “Without going too much into it, it was very close a couple of times,” said Levein. “It was just the way things have panned out. But, listen, he is a great kid and he has done really good things with Rio Ave and Valencia. Now he is working at Newcastle and I am sure that in time he would like to be a manager in his own right.”
Cathro was 22 when Levein made him junior academy manager at United. There was no hesitation from Levein despite his age. “It maybe raised some eyebrows, because he was known in Dundee and probably dismissed by the footballing community. But his ideas were, in my opinion, way ahead of a lot of more established people. That has been proven. It’s not like I’m sitting here trying to talk him up. In the interim period between then and now he has got to a stage in his career where he is No.2 at a Premier League club in England.
“The facts are that he produces good players. I know some of the stuff he did for Nuno was very specific and imaginative. He has a brain that sees things that other people miss. I wish him the best. He has stepped up a little bit, not from the league arguably, but he has moved up closer to the manager’s role and I am sure in time he will want to be a coach or a head coach in his own right.”
By then, some of the nine-year-olds trying out Box Soccer drills for the first time at Riccarton this year could be in the Hearts first team.