Hearts review of 2017: Cathro experiment fails but club stands tall
The year 2017 will forever be remembered as a landmark in Hearts' history. The rebuilding of Tynecastle Park was a sight some supporters thought may never happen, yet owner Ann Budge's commitment to staying in Gorgie bore fruit.
Fans rejoiced as a sumptuous new main stand, eventually expected to cost £15 million, opened in November. It was a moment to savour for those who doubted whether such a project would ever properly get off the ground. It also ensured 2017 would be remembered in Hearts’ history for that major achievement alone.
However, there was plenty before and after that point to make the year memorable for a whole variety of reasons.
The Ian Cathro managerial experiment failed, Hearts signed and released a handful of players, finished fifth in the Ladbrokes Premiership, and lost two of of their most valuable academy graduates in Callum Paterson and Sam Nicholson.
It is fair to say the first half of the year wasn’t loaded with positives for those who frequent Tynecastle. The second half initially didn’t look significantly better but a strong November and December on the field sent Hearts fans skipping rather than trudging into 2018.
First, a difficult January ensued for Cathro following his appointment the previous month in place of Robbie Neilson. A replay was needed to see off Championship side Raith Rovers in the Scottish Cup before a 4-0 defeat at Celtic Park in the league.
Reinforcements were needed on the playing side and in came a total of nine new signings. Defenders Lennard Sowah, Aaron Hughes, Tasos Avlonitis and Andraz Struna arrived on short-term deals until the summer, as did the highly-rated Greek midfielder Alexandros Tziolis and forward Dylan Bikey.
French midfielder Malaury Martin and Portuguese forward Esmael Goncalves both signed three-and-a-half-year deals, while winger Moha Choulay was brought north from Stoke City on a six-month loan.
February started with a glimpse of the kind of swashbuckling football Cathro would have envisaged when he left Newcastle United for Gorgie. Hearts romped all over Rangers at Tynecastle to run out 4-1 winners in a game which effectively sealed the fate of the under-pressure Ibrox manager Mark Warburton.
The following week, Cathro masterminded a 3-0 win at Motherwell to offer further encouragement that he was getting to grips with his first managerial role. However, the young Dundonian then found himself back to square one in the eyes of supporters following the Scottish Cup fourth-round replay exit against Hibs. It was the second year in succession Hearts had been eliminated from the national cup competition by their city rivals and their followers were growing impatient.
The remainder of the league season didn’t lift the discontent as only two more victories were garnered between the win at Fir Park on February 4 and the end of the campaign.
Cathro, though, was given a staunch vote of confidence during the summer from the club’s director of football, Craig Levein, who was behind his appointment from the start. Money was made available for further new signings and six of the nine players brought in during January moved on – Sowah, Struna, Avlonitis, Tziolis, Bikey and Choulay.
A six-month pursuit of Christophe Berra ended with the Scotland centre-back returning to Tynecastle and taking the captain’s armband once again. Luring a top quality defender back to Scotland from England was seen as a major coup by Cathro.
That was equalled when Kyle Lafferty agreed to become the next marquee arrival. The striker rejected interest from Hibs to become an instant hero in the eyes of Hearts fans when he signed a two-year deal. Leaving an agent waiting for him to hold talks at Easter Road on the day he put pen to paper at Tynecastle only served to heighten the sense of drama.
Northern Ireland right-back Michael Smith was signed from Peterborough United, while the arrival of Ashley Smith-Brown on loan from Manchester City was intended to solve Hearts’ problem left-back issue. Rafal Grzelak was brought in from Poland as back-up just in case.
Paterson and Nicholson chose to continue their careers elsewhere, with the former joining Cardiff and the latter moving to Minnesota United in America. Hearts received only a development fee for Paterson, and nothing for Nicholson.
Jamie Walker looked set to follow them as Rangers coveted his signature but their pitch failed to result in a deal. He is expected to depart during the January transfer window with his contract due to expire this summer.
On the pitch, much stayed the same despite the wholesale squad changes. Cathro saw his team bounced out of the League Cup group stage amid defeats by Peterhead and Dunfermline. Eventually, the axe fell on the Dundonian at the start of August and he was sacked.
With youth coach Jon Daly in interim charge, goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin came in from Burton Albion to be first-choice – leaving last season’s No.1 Jack Hamilton demoted.
Finally, on transfer deadline day, Ross Callachan realised a boyhood dream by moving to Tynecastle from Raith Rovers. There was also a loan agreement to bring in French winger David Milinkovic from Genoa.
Daly was in charge for four matches before Levein agreed to take on the manager’s job once again. He would combine it with his director of football position. Steven Pressley, Paul Hartley and Steve McClaren were all leading contenders for the position – which Billy Davies claimed was “beneath him” after his interview – but Levein chose to return to the dugout for the first time in five years.
He took time to find a successful formula but instantly set about making Hearts harder to beat. He also managed to find time to help the club open their own performance school at Balerno High School, just three miles from their Riccarton training ground. The commitment to youth was unwavering.
Senior players and management were hamstrung having to play all their matches away from home whilst Tynecastle’s main stand was constructed, though.
An initial plan to return to Hearts’ spiritual home in September had to be put back when a seat order was not processed on time. In the meantime, four “home” Premiership matches were staged at BT Murrayfield against Aberdeen, St Johnstone, Rangers and Kilmarnock.
Eventually on Sunday, November 19, and with a safety certificate only issued hours before kick-off, Tynecastle Park reopened with its new main stand. Hearts drew 1-1 with Partick Thistle but the sense of satisfaction at finally getting bums on seats was evident within the club hierarchy.
The stand represented astonishing progress from the board and fans through Foundation of Hearts just three-and-a-half years since the club came out of administration.
Slowly, things were improving. By the end of the month, Hearts were building momentum and properly caught fire just before Christmas. A 4-0 annihilation of Celtic at Tynecastle ended the Glasgow club’s record-breaking 69-game unbeaten run. Levein was certainly making his mark.
He was also blooding youth. When 16-year-old Anthony McDonald debuted against Dundee in December, he became the ninth teenager to play for Hearts this season. The others were Harry Cochrane (16), Euan Henderson (17), Daniel Baur (18), Rory Currie (18), Aidan Keena (18), Alex Petkov (18), Lewis Moore (19) and Jamie Brandon (19).
Hearts saw out 2017 in defiant form. They headed into the Premiership’s winter break with a nine-match unbeaten run and a club record six clean sheets in a row. That sequence included matches against Celtic, Hibs and Aberdeen. Perhaps it is a portent of things to come in 2018.