After capturing six new players already this summer, the Hearts coach Ian Cathro is hunting more.
A new goalkeeper remains top of his priority list just above a creative midfielder. Cathro feels he has unfinished business but won’t rush into any quick deals.
Christophe Berra, Cole Stockton, Rafal Grzelak, Kyle Lafferty, Michael Smith and Ashley Smith-Brown have already committed themselves to Hearts. The club’s squad numbers list for this season was released yesterday, confirming the No.1 goalkeeping shirt remains free with Jack Hamilton relegated to No.13.
The Evening News revealed last month that Allan McGregor is wanted at Tynecastle if he can agree a severance package for the final year of his Hull City contract. A potential move for the 35-year-old Scotland internationalist depends on him becoming a free agent.
Cathro is quite definite about the need to keep working to find new recruits, both in goal and outfield. “We are looking and there are areas of the team that we have to strengthen,” he explained. “We’ve a reached a point when things have maybe slowed down a bit. We need to stay calm and keep trying to do things properly.”
Those already in situ get a first outing at Tynecastle with three stands in this evening’s friendly against Cathro’s former club, Newcastle United. Credentials are guaranteed a stern test from the English Premier League newcomers. “It’s the right test for us. We definitely need to sharpen up a bit,” he continued. “To do that for competition you need to play against a team that’s at a level above you. We look forward to that test.”
Hearts’ pre-season to date denotes friendly wins over Livingston and Linfield, with a defeat by St Patrick’s Athletic in between. “Things have been really positive for us so far and I’ve been pleased with the level of games that we selected. Now we need to be on the pitch against top players. We need that stress and I’m hopeful that tonight gives us that and we can move forward to Tuesday [the start of the Betfred League Cup against Elgin City] being as ready as we can be.”
Cathro retains a close relationship with the Newcastle manager, Rafa Benitez. He sought the Spaniard’s counsel before leaving his assistant coach’s role at St James’ Park to take his first managerial job at Hearts last December.
“We talked about a lot of things. Some of that I’ll keep to myself but the biggest thing was him saying that you grow by taking the step and the challenge,” revealed Cathro. “The main chat was about making sure that you go to the right place. At that point I was convinced that Hearts would be the right place for me and I remain convinced of that now.
“I learned a lot working with Rafa, as I did with all of the other people. I was only at the club with him for a short period of time but it was also an intense period of time. We had to try and stay in the league, then we had to reshape the squad to try and prepare for the Championship. It was a valuable period of time.”
It would be impossible not to learn from a coach who collects European trophies the way others collect stamps. Benitez is the only man in the world to have won the Champions League, Europa League, UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup. Cathro insisted there is much more to him than glittering silverware.
“I think the most impressive thing is the conviction he has in his ideas. It’s about how well you can convince players of those ideas. He’s got a remarkable calmness and clarity in his thoughts, even in the most difficult moments inside of games. He sees things clearly and can react quickly.
“That probably comes over time and from living out a lot of different experiences. He’s been coaching from a very young age. Everybody thinks about the Champions League win and the top clubs but he started at a lower level and had some difficult moments. There’s not a bit of football he hasn’t been involved in. To give yourself a chance of being successful, you have to believe in the work you do. That’s not been something I had to take from anybody. It comes naturally to me but maybe it’s been reinforced by others, like Rafa.”
The pair met up during the summer and will reunite on the touchline in Edinurgh tonight. “It’s nice to be able to call upon people who are at that level of the game. It makes it easier to forget comments from people who are working at a lower level in the game,” said Cathro.
“There’s definitely some pleasant parts to playing Newcastle, like preparing a team to play against Rafa’s. It’ll go down as a nice moment. It’ll be good to catch up with a lot of the staff, to see the players and wish them well for the season. In football you’re always busy. There’s stress, pressure, change and all these things but you meet people and build friendships along the way. That’s a nice thing but we also have to make sure that the game serves its purpose.”
Cathro speaks fluent Portuguese and Spanish from spells coaching at Rio Ave and Valencia. He would converse with Benitez in Spanish at Newcastle – particularly when they were wary of eavesdroppers. It may be that knowledge of his homeland which convinced Benitez to keep the young Dundonian on board when he took charge of Newcastle in March 2016.
“Naturally, I thought I might have had to move on when Steve [McClaren] left. I would have entirely understood that because I’ve been on the other side of it, coming into a club and watching staff leave,” admitted Cathro. “Rafa has a very strong staff and most of them have been together for years. The operation of how they all work and complement each other is very impressive. It was a good thing to be asked to stay on by Rafa.
“He tested my Spanish and it probably actually improved more working with him at Newcastle than it did with Valencia when I was living in Spain. That probably sounds insane.
“We probably spoke in Spanish every other day, often depending on who else was in the room. It’s a good skill to have. There was also Ayoze Perez and Fabricio Coloccini. Speaking Spanish is sometimes comforting for these guys.”