With the exception of the free-falling Inverness Caledonian Thistle, no team in the Scottish Premiership needs this winter break more than Hearts.
A little over a month after hitting second place in Robbie Neilson’s last game in charge, the Tynecastle side are now as close to sixth-placed Ross County as they are to second-placed Rangers. In short, the wheels have come off in their push for second since Neilson departed for MK Dons. A run of five points from a possible 21 in the six games in December ensured Hearts ended 2016 on a low note and entered the shutdown with many of their supporters gripped by gloom.
Just five games into Ian Cathro’s reign, some are already as agitated as they ever were at any point in Neilson’s two-and-a-half-year tenure. The new head coach has had a chastening time of it since arriving in Gorgie a month ago and will be happy to have a few weeks to try and steady the ship and get things back on track, both through his work on the training ground and in the transfer market. It must be pointed out that the vast majority of Hearts supporters are still behind Cathro and willing to give him time to make his mark.
The 30-year-old – appointed amid incessant debate about his age and suitability for the role – was always facing a tough challenge when he replaced a man who won a league title in his first season in charge at Hearts, finished third in his first season in the Premiership, and left his team second only to a rampant Celtic team. Although branded a genius by former Dundee United colleague Stevie Campbell just before his appointment, Cathro was never likely to be able to flick a metaphorical switch that would suddenly take an already upwardly-mobile Hearts side to a new level and capable of going to Ibrox in his opening game and cruising to victory. As is the case in any walk of life, time is usually required to effectively implement change.
Cathro has his own ideas about how to take Hearts forward, which, on the evidence of the way the team has been set up in recent games, differ from Neilson’s. Early signs are that he appears to be keen to control matches from the midfield area, hence the deployment of four of the central quintet of Prince Buaben, Don Cowie, Krystian Nowak, Perry Kitchen and Arnaud Djoum in each of the last four matches. There has been a notable lack of width in those games, with Robbie Muirhead having started none of the last four despite being a key man in back-to-back home victories over Rangers and Motherwell. Cathro is an intelligent and switched-on individual, as evidenced by his remarkable rise to prominence, and the Dundonian clearly believes this is the best way for Hearts to play going forward.
The problem in the frenzied world of professional football, however, is that during a transitional period, while players and managers are still learning about each other and making mistakes along the way, there are still thousands of paying customers reluctant to tolerate a short-term drop-off in results and performances when there is no guarantee of long-term prosperity.
Plenty supporters simply see a demoralising home draw against Partick Thistle, a meek surrendering of a 2-0 goal lead in the defeat at Dundee, and a listless home defeat against Aberdeen, and their natural reaction is to be enraged and outspoken rather than patient and understanding of the situation. This is the law of the football jungle, particularly at Tynecastle, where the level of intensity and scrutiny means firm perceptions of individuals are formed notoriously quickly and settling-in periods are virtually non-existent.
Owner Ann Budge recently stated that it could take a year for Cathro to start making his mark at Hearts, and there is every chance that this will be the case. With Rangers and Aberdeen finding form after a difficult start to the season, another top-three finish looks a tall order this season. Cathro knows the importance of keeping the fans onside in the short term in order to maintain a relatively harmonious environment for his long-term plans to come to fruition. With that in mind, his next match in charge, the Scottish Cup fourth-round trip to Raith Rovers a fortnight on Sunday, already looms large as the biggest of his short managerial tenure.
Despite Neilson’s unarguable season-on-season progress in the league, the absence of a notable domestic cup run in five attempts became a major bone of contention in the eyes of his detractors. For some, his good work in taking Hearts from the Championship to second in the Premiership in just over two years was overshadowed by the fact his team relinquished a two-goal lead against bitter city rivals Hibs, who took advantage of their reprieve by going on to lift the trophy for the first time in 114 years just three months later.
Cathro needs to be alert to the huge importance Hearts supporters attach to the cup competitions, and must ensure his side don’t slip up against a Raith Rovers side who are sure to provide spirited opposition at Stark’s Park, as both Hibs and Dundee United can testify. Hearts have better players than Rovers and should be capable of progressing, but, as will be the case for all top-flight teams, the Tynecastle side will be going into the game cold after three weeks without a match. In light of the way Cathro’s reign has started, the trip to Kirkcaldy is fraught with danger and the negative effects of exiting a tournament which Hearts should have genuine hopes of competing for would be hard to shake off for the head coach, even at this early stage in his tenure.
It is imperative, therefore, that the squad is perfectly prepared, and that any planned activity in the transfer market is completed in time to ensure Hearts are as strong as they possibly can be. By hook or by crook, they must not succumb to Gary Locke’s side. With Celtic away and Rangers at home next up, there are no easy points on offer in the league any time soon. A much-coveted cup run would go a long way to helping Cathro keep the vultures at bay if, as looks likely amid this period of transition, they are unable to haul themselves back into the mix for a top-three finish.
Fourth is probably where Hearts should be in terms of their budget and the quality of their squad in relation to their rivals. They have one of the youngest squads in the league, but still have a group of players who can be expected to compete against any team in the country on their day. There is clearly room for upgrades, particularly at the front end of the pitch, but no need for wholesale surgery. While the likes of Conor Sammon, Juwon Oshaniwa and deposed captain Alim Ozturk, who has endured a remarkable fall from grace over the last six months, all look like they will be on their way out sooner or later, those among the regular starters generally have enough credit in the bank to be worth retaining despite the team’s recent slump.
Jack Hamilton is emerging as a quality young goalkeeper and should certainly be persisted with. Although his distribution requires work, it is hard to recall another 22-year-old Scottish goalkeeper looking so accomplished in the top flight since Craig Gordon came through at Tynecastle over a decade ago.
In central defence, Hearts are generally well served by John Souttar and Igor Rossi, while Nowak can also play there if required. With Ozturk seemingly persona non grata, however, there may be room for an Aaron Hughes-type veteran in order to allow the 20-year-old Souttar some time out of the firing line, if required. With Callum Paterson injured and Oshaniwa out of favour, a new full-back will be required to cover for Liam Smith and Faycal Rherras, both of whom are still getting to grips with life as regular starters at Hearts. Hearts have plenty good established central-midfield operators, while young Angus Beith continues to knock on the door. With Bjorn Johnsen the only semi-reliable centre-forward at Hearts at present, at least one new striker is needed. Even then, there is no guarantee they will be able to source anyone equipped to come in and make an instant impact, as evidenced by last January’s recruitment of Abiola Dauda, who failed to live up to his impressive pedigree. Most clubs are in the same boat in this regard. Hearts have the option of recalling Juanma Delgado, last term’s top scorer, from his season-long loan at UCAM Murcia, but thus far there has been no move to do so. In any case, deploying the promising Muirhead in attack would be a more sensible move than bringing back the Spaniard, who was lacklustre throughout the second half of last season bar one game against Aberdeen in April. A sparky creative or wide player is needed to ease the burden on Jamie Walker. Sam Nicholson is due back in around a month, but will require time to regain top form and is set to depart in the summer.
All is not as bad as it may have seemed for Hearts in the immediate aftermath of that chastening defeat by Aberdeen. While a couple of January recruits are required to freshen up the squad, the players already at the club have shown that they are good enough to compete with the Dons, Rangers and Celtic on their day. Cathro must remind his defenders how to keep the back door shut – they have kept six clean sheets in 21 league games – although if his possession game from the first half at Dundee recently can be replicated consistently, they will dominate the ball, which should automatically reduce the defensive workload of the back four.
As trivial as it may seem to focus on one game against a Championship side, the priority for Cathro, as he seeks to give his reign some form of post-break lift-off, is to ensure there is a clear plan of attack for the trip to Raith Rovers, as staying alive in the Scottish Cup will assure him of some breathing space even if league form tails off in the short term.