Hearts will be appointing a “genius” if, as expected, Ian Cathro continues his “fairytale” rise into football management by replacing Robbie Neilson as head coach.
That is the verdict of Stevie Campbell, who has paid close attention as the driven 30-year-old Dundonian football boffin has set about defying the doubters by climbing the coaching ladder.
From coaching the likes of Ryan Gauld and John Souttar at primary school age around a decade ago, Cathro, with no notable playing background, has already elevated himself to become assistant manager of Newcastle United after a fruitful stint in the Dundee United academy was followed by education-enhancing spells as assistant to the highly-regarded Nuno Espirito Santo at both Rio Ave and Valencia.
Craig Levein, Hearts’ current director of football, handed the then-23-year-old Cathro his big break when, as manager of United some seven years ago, he asked him to help lead a restructure of the youth system at Tannadice by appointing him as junior academy manager. Campbell was a highly-regarded youth director at the time and remains close to Cathro to this day. When it emerged on Monday that Neilson would be heading for MK Dons, Campbell was in no doubt who Levein would turn to as his primary target to fill the void.
“We’re both from Dundee and I knew of Ian even before I joined United about 11 years ago,” Campbell told the Evening News. “He was well-known to all football people in the Dundee area just because his approach was so different. I was just astounded by him – and I really mean that word. This guy, in my opinion, was always destined for this sort of thing. He just did things so, so differently. He was working away with young boys like Souttar, Gauldy and Craig Wighton in his Cathro Clinic, and that pretty much transformed into Box Soccer, which is doing really well. Although he’s still behind Box Soccer, he’s obviously moved on to bigger and better things.
“I remember being in the room with Craig and Ian the day he was appointed as junior academy manager at United. I’ve never felt so inept in my life because those two just talked and talked about all aspects of football, and I couldn’t get a word in, which is not like me. Their relationship just grew from there.
“Craig was trying to restructure the academy and needed some help with it. He asked Ian to make up a curriculum for all the academy teams and, I’m not joking you, Ian came in the following day with the biggest curriculum you’ll ever see in your life. He must have worked right round the clock, and that’s the way he is. I think Craig has been quoted previously as saying he’d never seen anyone in youth football capable of doing what Ian was doing. People talk about innovators, but that is the perfect way to describe Ian. Him and Craig have a great relationship and rapport with each other.
“I know Ian turned him down a few years ago when he asked him to come to Hearts [as under-20 coach], but Craig’s not daft – he won’t hold that against him. He’ll do the best for Hearts. The minute Robbie looked like he was going, it was obvious to me that Cathro would be the man Craig would go for. In my opinion, the time is right.”
Campbell, 19 years his senior, was spellbound by the manner in which Cathro went about his business in his early 20s, and believes he will now be operating on an even greater level after his subsequent experiences in Portugal, Spain and England. “Me, Craig, [senior academy manager] Brian Grant and Ian worked closely together and it was an eye-opener for myself and Brian, who had both been in the game for years and worked with some fantastic coaches,” said Campbell. “We’d look at each other now and again and just think ‘wow’ because what he did was just so different to what we had been used to. There’s still a bit of a legacy at United with all the things he helped implement at the club.
“When the likes of Gauldy and Souttar came to me around 15 years old, I’d never seen kids so advanced in terms of their education, and that’s all down to Ian. It’s a pity you can’t keep boys like Ian working with you forever, but he was just that ambitious that he had to move on.
“The dynamic was great at United but unfortunately it didn’t last too long because Craig took the Scotland job and came back to take Ian to the SFA. I told a newspaper at the time they wouldn’t hold on to him for long because he’s on a different planet. I’ve worked with some absolutely brilliant coaches throughout my career, but I’ve never come across anyone like Ian. Even when he took the under-17s at United, I’ve never seen so much preparation and in-depth analysis. With all due respect, this is under-17 level we’re talking about, but I was blown away by the way he worked.
“He was always coming up with new ideas. By the time he’d implemented something, he was already on to something else, and that was the breathtaking thing about him. I’d be thinking ‘right, I see what he’s trying to do – I get it’ and then suddenly he’d be away on to something else. He was just an absolute wealth of knowledge.
“Everything he did was outside the box compared to the norm in Scottish football, and he ruffled a few feathers in that time, but he was just so ambitious to educate himself and one day become a manager. That’s going back five or six years, so you can only imagine what else he’s added to his knowledge since he’s been at Rio Ave, Valencia and Newcastle. He’s ready now to step into management, and he’ll conduct himself great with the players. He’s a genius, and I mean that word.”
There is an element of scepticism about Cathro’s credentials because of his relative youthfulness and the fact he hasn’t taken the conventional route into management. Campbell is adamant, however, that the burgeoning coach will have no problem persuading the Hearts players – of whom Souttar is now among this number – to buy into his methods.
“A hell of a lot of people have said in the past ‘Cathro will never do this or that because he didn’t play the game’,” said Campbell. “Believe me, after he’s worked with the Hearts players for a day, they will know exactly what they’ve got there. He’ll win them over with his incredible knowledge and his tactical nous immediately. He’ll only win over the supporters by getting results, but just knowing him and how driven and successful he has been in everything that he’s done, he will succeed. I’m not remotely worried about that – he will get success.
“John will already have told the rest of the Hearts players about Ian. I know what players are like, they’ll have been asking about him. When I was in charge of John and Gauldy in older age-groups, I welcomed the fact they would still go back to Ian to continue their development with him even though he was working with the younger ones. I never felt threatened by that – I just thought let him pass on as much of his knowledge to them as possible because he had done so much with them when they were younger. Ian keeps in touch with all his players of that ilk, and John will have the Hearts boys well-briefed, that’s for sure.
“Players always know when a coach has got knowledge, and the fact he’s not been a big-name player will not be a problem with the Hearts players, and hopefully the fans either, sooner or later. He’s thick-skinned, single-minded, some people would even say selfish, but he’s just so driven to succeed that nothing will stand in his way. I’m confident of that.”
Neilson found that even a rapid ascent from the Championship to second in the Premiership wasn’t enough to keep some supporters onside. Campbell insists Cathro won’t be fazed by the level of expectation at Hearts. In fact he has backed him to thrive on it, to the point where he is headhunted at some point in the future.
“He’s served his apprenticeship under the likes of Nuno and [Rafa] Benitez and now he’ll feel he’s ready to take the reins himself. I’ll be honest, he’ll move on from Hearts in a couple of years because he’s ambitious. That’s just the way football management is. You don’t get managers staying at one team for a long time now.
“Ian spoke to Hearts a few years ago but I think he did the right thing staying abroad. Not many people would go to Rio Ave from Britain to progress themselves but he did that. I remember meeting Nuno to do a coaching session a while back and he worked so differently to what we’d been used in Britain, and Cathro was in that same mould.
“He’ll be different and he’ll shake a few people up, because he did that at United even in his tender years. He wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea. He can be outspoken but that’s down to his single-mindedness and his intelligence of the game.”
Campbell believes Cathro will embrace the task of fast-tracking youngsters from Hearts’ academy into the first team. “Hearts have got some good young players in their system and Ian will not be scared to put them in the team,” he said. “At United, he used to challenge Gauldy and Souttar to get into the team at 16. Even that was an eye-opener for us. We were thinking ‘calm down Ian, maybe at 18 or 19’ but he was right because Jackie McNamara threw them in at 16, which was brilliant. I’m sure Ian would do exactly the same at Hearts.”
Cathro’s emergence as a coach of genuine substance has heartened Campbell, who detected plenty were willing him to fail when he first started making waves in the Dundee area. “It’s brilliant to see what he’s done,” he said. “He’s a local lad who deserves everything that comes his way. It really is a fairytale story. He wasn’t a boy to go out socialising – he was just so focused. A lot of people thought ‘what’s this guy all about’ just because he was so different, but I think the more people worked closely with him, they soon realised exactly what he was about. You know what people are like, there were many doubters about him in the early days. But he’s highly respected by everyone who worked with him at United and I think he’s well on course – if he hasn’t already done it – to proving these people wrong.”