Quality over quantity is the mantra as Hearts head coach Ian Cathro builds a new team for next season. He covets new players with character, experience, guts and leadership. Players like Christophe Berra, who rejoined the Edinburgh club this week and was immediately reappointed captain.
There is no doubt stars aligned favourably to allow a 35-cap international centre-back to leave a five-figure weekly salary in England and return to Scotland. Berra wanted back home to be closer to his four-year-old daughter, Ipswich agreed rather than invoke their option to keep him, and financially he is already secure so the wage drop is less of an issue.
Getting more Berras in the door will be difficult but Cathro is determined not to repeat the scattergun approach taken in January. Nine non-Scottish signings made in haste proved fruitless and six have been released already. Add Callum Paterson and Sam Nicholson leaving on freedom of contract, plus Perry Kitchen likely to go after being deposed as captain, and there are many voids to fill.
Decisions in this transfer window must be significantly better than the last one. Cathro has his work cut out and, wisely, is prioritising quality above all else. “The balance has swung in that direction,” he said. “We have been helped a little because we have a couple of the younger kids who had good experience out on loan and now become an option for us.
“Our younger players are coming through the academy. A number of them are still a bit of time away from being ready for us but they are closer. It’s about getting the right people and the right quality of player and the right characters.
“Getting Christophe is an important step for us at the start. We know exactly what we need to bring. We’ve always been clear on how we will get to where we want to go. My feeling is that we need more captains, we need more leaders, we need more players of stronger experience, of more resilience, of more games in their background, good moments, bad moments.
“We need players knowing they can go past a ten-minute spell in a game that is not going for us. We need more of those. There are key areas where we want to improve things and have a different level of strength. Like when a game is maybe starting to swing against us, you suffer four chances against you in a row, or a couple of corners in a row, and the mood music changes a wee bit.”
Character is indeed most evident in a footballer when events conspire against him. “It becomes really clear in the way he reacts in the couple of minutes after something happens,” continued the former Newcastle United assistant. “You can see that in the game – how he is when he is playing well and how he is when things maybe aren’t going so well.
“You see it in everything when he is on the pitch because there’s nowhere to hide. I remember preparing a game to play against Ipswich, at St James’ Park, earlier in the season. We were very aware of Christophe’s quality at that level. I am really pleased that he has joined us.
“We need to make sure we have the correct blend of players who are courageous and ready to play, and who are also courageous and ready to suffer and manage their way through that. So we are very, very aware of what we need to bring in.”
How many new recruits Hearts require is a pertinent question which Cathro isn’t keen to be drawn on. An educated guess would suggest at least six incomings are necessary. Both full-back areas need filled, another striker is a priority, plus at least one winger, possibly two. Add in another centre-back for cover.
Those coming in must be significantly better than those leaving to ensure there is no repeat of Hearts’ poor run of just six wins since last December. “We need to make some changes, we started that a long time ago if we are being honest,” continued Cathro. “It’s not for today to get into the scale of that, because we can also do that with improving on some of the things that happened. There were also some – some – positive parts during that period as well and it would be foolish to forget that.
Newcastle are restored to England’s Premier League while Cathro is under pressure to deliver at Tynecastle. He wouldn’t swap his current job for his previous one, though. “No, not at all. You can’t undervalue working in the Premier League but I have been there and I have prepared for all those games. I have done that as an assistant,” he said. “It is one of the best leagues in the world, as is the Spanish league and I have been there as well. So, no regrets on any level.”
Berra is equally satisfied he made the correct choice leaving England for Scotland. Hearts couldn’t compete with the money on offer down south so the fact he wanted back to Edinburgh for family reasons was pivotal to the move.
“When you get into the economical bit, it’s going to be a difficult task,” admitted Cathro. “It’s certainly something we would have worked towards in either situation, but we can’t pretend and say there would be any economical comparison between one option or the other. There just can’t be. So yeah, maybe some circumstances have come together.
“One of the positives is that he sees what we want to do and understands how we want to do it. He is as excited as I am and the other lead players, who have been here over the last five months. There was never really the need for a type of conversation to be had because of how we see the next steps in the club’s progress.”