For someone supposedly shy and introverted, Ian Cathro does a fine impression of a confident, driven, articulate football coach.
Which is exactly why Hearts have handed him his first managerial job at the tender age of 30.
He talks of growing, refusing to set limits for himself and working in a supportive environment. His No.2, the 37-year-old Northern Ireland assistant Austin MacPhee, is equally impressive. Cathro has coached at top clubs in Portugal, Spain and England. He is now entrusted with the task of continuing Hearts’ progress despite never working as a head coach before.
Doubters point to his obvious lack of experience for the role. He has been accused of being too young, too quiet and too much of a Powerpoint coach. None of it bothers him. He even joked during his media unveiling yesterday that he could illustrate his playing style by showing “numerous Powerpoint presentations on my laptop”.
If there were any lingering doubts at the back of his mind about his ability to take Hearts to the next level after Robbie Neilson’s exit, they dispersed when Rafa Benitez told him he was ready. Cathro was working as an assistant to the Newcastle United manager when he was offered the chance to become his own man at Tynecastle just a few days ago.
“The biggest influence on me will always be Nuno Espirito Santo [whom Cathro worked under at Rio Ave and Valencia] but I also have to say that working with Rafa has been a really positive experience,” said Cathro. “He’s an incredible professional with outstanding experience and intelligence. He can make things make sense really easily. He’s been very supportive of me in this situation. I’ve taken a lot from him and his staff.
“He was supportive of this idea. His only thoughts were about me making sure it was the right place. If I felt it was right, then it was the right time. I feel this is the right place. There are lots of bits of advice he’s given which I’ll keep to myself because it’s quite personal. The biggest thing was about going to the right place. To start as a manager is a big step but it was mainly about where.”
With Craig Levein director of football, Hearts is the ideal starting point for a young Dundonian who never played professional football but who has studied and coached his way to the Tynecastle manager’s chair. Levein appointed him head of youth at Dundee United before Cathro took the chance to broaden his horizons on the continent. He is now back in Scotland complete with UEFA Pro Licence and eager to cement his reputation in management.
“I’ve been ready a while. It would always depend on the place,” admitted Cathro. “I had an idea of what I wanted to work in. I’m not a valid option for a football club where you sign your contract, they open the manager’s office, give you the key and then shut the door. If that’s the scenario, then don’t appoint me. I’m not right for that and I don’t want that. I want an infrastructure, I want support, I want to be able to grow with people. If that was the case here then I’m not ready. For this, I’m ready.”
Is he ready to deal with resistance from any player who may feel he isn’t properly qualified because he hasn’t played professionally or managed previously?
“I don’t think I really have [encountered resistance] from players. Certainly in Portugal that was never the case. I went there without knowing a word of Portuguese and, a couple of days in, I’m told to run a whole training session with very few English speakers in there. So you either do it or you don’t – you step up or you don’t.
“From then on, my very poor, grammatically incorrect or completely wrong Portuguese was made up for by enthusiasm and gesticulations! We were fine from that on. I didn’t learn Portuguese from a teacher or a class. I learned it from the players. There was never an issue, and Valencia was the same. That enquiring attitude isn’t driven by players, it is part of me. I want to explain things and have conversations about football. It is part of the process.
“In any dressing room, you have players who have come from different backgrounds, with different youth development and different concepts. You talk to a Dutch player who wants to go man-to-man and press, you go to an older British lad who wants to be on the edge of his box. Then you might have a Spanish lad who wants to control space and press where we can.
“You have those things going on and you need to be able to take them and say ‘this is what we are doing and this is why’. The whole thing breaks if there is no collective clarity. You don’t achieve anything by just saying ‘do that...grrr!’ It just doesn’t work. You might need to speak different languages and I don’t know what ‘grrrr’ is in a different language!”
He’ll soon find out what it is in Scottish if Hearts’ results are not to fans’ satisfaction. So far, the Tynecastle support have welcomed the appointment and the fact their club continue to think differently with Levein and owner Ann Budge working together.
Levein’s presence will be a comfort to Cathro after the 52-year-old helped launch his career at Tannadice. “At that point it was all about an opportunity,” explained Cathro. “I had been doing work like that for the previous four or five years. Not a lot changed. I was a youth coach running an academy with a lot of the same kids who were at United. The biggest thing was the opportunity and the belief.
“It was a similar situation with Steve [McClaren at Newcastle], you do your work and prepare training. Prepare what you think is the best way to play and we’ll deal with it. That was a difficult time, with a lot of factors around that, which, as it turns out, have been very important on a personal level. That has continued with Rafa. He has a very strong staff with big roles and initially the way I could help was with ‘here is what I would do’.
“So the way I work on a day-to-day basis won’t really change that much, it is just the other things – decision making from small to large – that will be different.”
Cathro will also be grateful to see a familiar face in the dressing room. Hearts defender John Souttar coached by Cathro as a teenager at United.
“I’ve kept in touch with him and he’s a member of the squad here,” said Cathro. “He’s been doing well in the games I’ve looked at. If he does his work, he has a chance to improve. Special treatment doesn’t exist and everyone knows that. This is serious. This is work. Part of my responsibility is to help players improve. John is one of them.”
His baptism takes place this Saturday at Ibrox against Rangers. “It’s an ideal start because you always can get a bit more value out of the analysis and the outcome of these sorts of games. There are a few more eyes on you. It’s a good challenge, playing away from home in a strong environment. It may help us speed up how quickly we get each other and how quickly we can learn about everyone.”
What his players will learn quickly is that he doesn’t operate with any kind of metaphorical ceiling. Asked whether a league title is realistic for Hearts in the near future, Cathro replied: “I don’t want people to be living with the idea that you get to there and that’s it. You don’t go as hard all the way because you know, ‘well, I’m going to hit the roof so I’ll go a wee bit slower and take my time’. No. Don’t. We don’t know where it is. It might be there, it might not. It might be somewhere else. The point is to go in search of where our limit is and not be trapped by anything that’s just historical.”