Ann Budge and Craig Levein didn’t stay to watch Hearts’ penalty shootout against Dunfermline. They left Ian Cathro to it.
Standing on the edge of his technical area alone, the club’s head coach endured calls for his sacking from fans in the Wheatfield Stand behind him. Some were less than five yards away screaming a torrent of abuse.
Being emptied from the Betfred Cup at the group stage – finishing third in a five-team section behind League Two Peterhead and Championship side Dunfermline – left Hearts supporters rightly outraged. Owner and director of football had seen enough. As dissenting voices around them grew louder, Budge and Levein vacated Tynecastle’s temporary directors’ box in the Gorgie Stand upon referee Craig Thomson’s final whistle.
Cathro stood there watching the shootout, perhaps wondering if it existed just to prolong his torture. Hearts were already out of the tournament having drawn 2-2 with Dunfermline when needing to win this final Group B fixture. Hanging around for penalties only served to extend his chastising in full public view.
To his credit, he didn’t shirk away. Unlike too many of his players during the previous 90 minutes. Whether he remains in situ long-term is down to their ability to recover form, energy and, in some cases, basic desire. Budge and Levein will certainly be watching with a keen eye as they debate the way forward for Hearts.
Some fans have already lost patience, hence chants of “Cathro, Cathro get tae F***” during the game.
“The fans have every right to be upset. We’ve just got to regroup,” said vice-captain Don Cowie. “As players, if you’re not going to be ready and step up to the plate then we’ll just get different players. It’s up to us.
“No matter what age you are, you’re always learning and trying to help. At the same time, there’s only so much you can do for other players. It’s not just about having experience.
“We’ve got Arnaud [Djoum], an African Cup of Nations winner. Prince [Buaben] has played in Scotland’s top league for years. Aaron Hughes has still to come back in. Collectively, we all need to do better. If we can help the manager in any way, we’ll do the best we can.”
Cowie’s goal was quickly equalised by Joe Cardle before Declan McManus put Dunfermline 2-1 ahead early in the second half. That goal was attributable in part to John Souttar’s slip, but Cathro took responsibility afterwards. He stated that Souttar should have been replaced at half-time because he is still finding fitness after six months out with a ruptured Achilles.
Esmael Goncalves scrambled an equaliser in the dying minutes, and substitute Cole Stockton might have forced a winner on the turn but sent his shot into the stand. The 2-2 final score confirmed Hearts’ exit at the first stage of a tournament they harboured hopes of winning.
Penalties were merely a needless extension of the hosts’ agony. Jordan McGhee, Malaury Martin and Don Cowie all sent their efforts over the crossbar, with Kyle Lafferty the only home player to score. Michael Paton, Scott Lochead and Nat Wedderburn netted to give Dunfermline a 3-1 shootout victory and extra bonus point as they topped the section.
Hearts lost to part-time Peterhead last Tuesday and the failure to beat Dunfermline is a damaging blow just days before the Ladbrokes Premiership starts. “There’s no hiding, it’s massive to go out,” admitted Cowie. “The reason a lot of us come here is to challenge for trophies. The bottom line is: It’s not acceptable to go out at this stage. Losing last Tuesday night meant Saturday was a massive game. Unfortunately, we weren’t good enough.”
Most fans reserved their verbals for Cathro but players didn’t escape entirely unscathed as they left the field. Jamie Walker did after being left out of the Hearts squad. Cathro said the winger has lost focus due to recent speculation about a transfer to Rangers. Teenager Jamie Brandon played right wing-back, with Michael Smith switching to the left flank.
Supporters’ anger dates back to the insipid second half of last season but they hoped for a fresh beginning after seven new players were signed. You have to wonder what the latest, Connor Randall on loan from Liverpool, made of all this.
“You’ve just got to grow up and accept it. You’re playing at a club where fans expect you to win games,” said the 34-year-old Cowie. “If people want to do things in their careers, you’ve just got to man up to it. Get on with it. It’s only going to get worse the older you get. If you’re not willing to deal with it, like I said, I’m sure we’ll get other players in.”
There was a frank exchange of views in the home dressing-room before everyone dispersed. It lasted around 30 minutes before Cathro emerged to speak to the media. “We said in the dressing-room that, if you want to have a good career and go places, it only gets worse. The pressures are only higher,” said Cowie. “What better place to start than here? It’ll stand you in great stead for the rest of your career.
“We’ve not achieved what we wanted to achieve so we had to speak. Now, we’ve got to step up. There’s no beating about the bush. It’s not been good enough. The only good thing is there hasn’t been a ball kicked in the league yet. It’s up to us to get these fans back on our side.”
A previously unthinkable start to the season has become reality for Hearts. Just to make things easier, they now start their league campaign at Celtic Park on Saturday. “We haven’t kicked a ball in the league but what a chance for us to turn this on its head in the league away to Celtic,” said Cowie, optimistically.
“There’s no place better to put this to bed. We’ve got four massive games away from home, which won’t be easy, but that’s the pressure of being a professional footballer at a high-profile club like Hearts. You’ve just go to deal with that. The majority of us aren’t doing that right now. The sooner we do, the better.”