Ian Cathro is busy in his Riccarton office planning the next stage of his Hearts rebuild. It is a sizeable task given he has lost a total of seven players as things stand. The message he wants to impart to supporters is that there is no cause for panic.
Four players have been moved on this month in Igor Rossi, Alim Ozturk, Tony Watt and Juanma Delgado. Another, Callum Paterson, is out injured until the autumn, whilst Arnaud Djoum and Faycal Rherras are on international duty at the Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon.
So far, only two new signings have arrived at Tynecastle – the veteran Northern Irish international defender Aaron Hughes and 24-year-old German left-back Lennard Sowah. More will follow before the January transfer window closes, however. Head coach Cathro is completely relaxed because it’s all part of his strategy.
He replaced Robbie Neilson in that very office at the start of December and began a quiet reorganising programme which is far from complete. Even when the window closes at the end of the month, Cathro’s work won’t be finished. He will then devise a more thorough and longer-term recruitment drive for the summer.
For now, he wants to replenish his squad with at least one more defender and has also made a striker a priority. Those shipped out were predominantly defenders and forwards so it stands to reason those areas now need urgent attention.
“I have the responsibility of working with the club to make sure that, come the end of this window, the squad is stronger and more balanced,” said Cathro, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “We want to be ready to compete, more so than we were at the start of the window. I’m fairly relaxed and confident that will be the case.
“We have to work quietly, professionally and as soon as there are things completed then we can make everyone aware of it. There is no reason for panic. We stay calm, we do our work and, come the end of the window, we will be stronger and more balanced than what we were at the start.”
Recruiting Hughes and Sowah were pro-active moves put in place before the expected departures of Ozturk and Rossi. Six-month contracts were given to both but those can be extended if they impress in maroon. It is vital that any new signing fits the team model Cathro and his assistant Austin MacPhee want to create.
“The departures haven’t changed anything drastically. We have a number of things that we’re working on at the moment,” continued Cathro. “It’s that situation where, if you bring someone in before someone leaves, then you don’t need to react the same way.
“We have made some progress, we have some good options lined up, although there is still a bit of work to be done on them. Also, we need to keep looking for anything else that can help us. We will be doing some things.”
The name of Scotland centre-back Christophe Berra sits very close to the top of that list of options. He is keen to rejoin Hearts after eight years in England with Wolves and current club Ipswich Town.
If the 31-year-old can’t negotiate an exit from Portman Road in this transfer window, a summer move back to his formative club would be most likely. Either way, Cathro wants to add at least one more defender this month.
“We expect to add players in the defensive area of the pitch. That was an area where we wanted to do some work and we expect to be able to add more quality in there,” he confirmed.
“The two transfer windows are very different. The summer is the one in which we will direct ourselves forward. We will focus more on it because I think we can get more value and make more of a long-term improvement.”
Also high on the agenda is a striker. Specifically, a different type to what Hearts have at the moment. Cathro is keen on a mobile forward with the instinct to run in behind opposition defenders and take chances inside the penalty area.
“There are players going out so you look at what the options are and we will be looking at options in that area of the pitch. We want to not only strengthen but create competition. We’re looking to bring in maybe a different type of striker,” said the head coach.
“We are looking at every area and we have to accept that January is difficult, particularly for getting those types of players. In each situation where we can make an improvement, we will do our best to try and make that improvement now. Then, the more significant steps can be taken in the summer window as opposed to the winter one.”
Competitive football returns this weekend for Hearts in the shape of a potentially hazardous Scottish Cup tie at Raith Rovers. Hughes and Sowah are expected to make their debuts at Stark’s Park.
The Scottish Premiership’s winter shutdown runs until next weekend, when the Edinburgh club restart with a visit to unbeaten Celtic. Cathro’s record so far reads: Played five, won one, drawn one, lost three. He is eager to get back to business after making the most of the break since the end of December.
“I’m very much looking forward to it. It’s a simple case of looking forward to the next game,” he said. “We’re ready to play and with each day we’ll be a little bit better. We’ve managed to make some value of the time during the winter break.
“Players have had some rest with their families, myself and the staff have had time to work together, reflect and plan the next couple of steps, and we’ve also had time on the training pitch to do some good work.”