“Let the ride begin.” Ian Cathro’s words inside Tynecastle’s Bobby Walker Suite eight months ago were those of a hungry, enthusiastic coach ready for the challenge of football management. Like that function room in the stadium’s old main stand, he is now gone.
The Hearts board deliberated for two days before concluding, late on Monday night, that sacking their head coach was unavoidable. Director of football Craig Levein took responsibility for the failed appointment and put his name to the statement which confirmed Cathro’s dismissal yesterday morning.
Eight wins in 30 matches, ending with Saturday’s humiliating Betfred Cup group stage exit, sealed the 31-year-old’s fate in his first managerial job. His record of 30 matches, eight wins, seven draws and 15 defeats equates to a 27 per cent win ratio which is amongst the worst in Hearts’ history.
Directors were determined to show patience after the radical appointment of a man who never played football professionally or worked at senior level in Scotland. They handed Cathro a three-and-a-half-year contract upon his arrival, impressed by a fine coaching CV denoting spells at Rio Ave in Portugal, Valencia in Spain and Newcastle United. Paying him off now will involve a considerable six-figure sum.
It is unprecedented to sack a manager four days before a new league season begins, but the time had come.
“It was an unavoidable thing. It was probably a build-up of things, not just Saturday,” explained Stuart Wallace, the Foundation of Hearts chairman who sits on the club’s board alongside owner Ann Budge, Levein, Eric Hogg, Donald Cumming and Kevin Windram.
“The night before the Foundation AGM when I became chairman was the 4-1 win over Rangers [in February]. I remember thinking that night that we’d had a snapshot of what could come. That was clearly Ian’s gameplan and vision, to the take the match to Rangers. I remember standing up at the AGM and saying: ‘Blimey. If that’s a window into what’s coming in the future, mark me up for that.’ It was champagne football.
“That was one of the few times we saw it at that intensity and at that level. As a supporters, you’re just left a wee bit disappointed and sad. We tried to bring something really different and exciting. We were just desperately keen for it to work out but it was obvious in the end that it wasn’t working out.”
Supporters’ reaction at the end of Saturday’s 2-2 draw and subsequent penalty shootout loss against Dunfermline confirmed as much. While Cathro suffered torrid abuse in his technical area in front of the Wheatfield Stand, the Hearts board were seated in the temporary directors’ box in the Gorgie Stand as the main stand is rebuilt. They didn’t escape the verbals either.
“I would say around 98 per cent of the supporters around us were absolutely first-class,” said Wallace. “They recognised the board were in a different place to normal. It was hard to tell from the Gorgie Stand but it seemed like the fans only really started getting edgy very near the end of the game. I believe Ian was in the firing line over in the Wheatfield Stand. Anybody sitting in the stadium towards the end would’ve realised the mood of the place. I wouldn’t say it influenced the decision but it has been acknowledged.”
There is no denying the Hearts manager’s job remains an attractive proposition even with the demands for success.
“On paper, we have a fantastic squad and we only strengthened that over the summer,” said Wallace. “There is going to be a new stand opening and it will be an immense-looking stadium when it’s all opened. There’s an opportunity to generate revenue on a different scale going forward with the new stand. Also, how many other football clubs have an organisation like FoH behind it?
“You look at it and say: ‘Wow, what a time to take on the Hearts job.’ That probably makes it more crucial that the right thinking goes into who the new man should be. Everybody will no doubt want to know who it is. My guess is there will be a lot of strong candidates out there who are interested.”
Cathro will still be missed in some quarters, though. “When Ian came in it was a different model but everybody bought into it right away and got behind him. Ian, like Robbie Neilson before him, was a huge supporter of the Foundation. He was really passionate about it and gave his time freely to us on Sunday mornings for things like plot ceremonies. That stuff isn’t always obvious.”
With almost 8,000 members pledging monthly cash to help fund Hearts, FoH are crucial to the Edinburgh club’s prosperity. A select few of their subscribers cancelled direct debits over the weekend.
“I’d be very honest and say we literally had a handful. By that, I mean about four or five outright cancellations,” admitted Wallace. “What we had was more email traffic, probably a couple of dozen. People wrote in and asked us what our view was. I knew there was a lot happening in the background. There was a lot of speculation on social media but these decisions need to be made with calm heads. Maybe sleep on it and have a conversation on the Monday. So we didn’t reply to those emails instantly.
“The Foundation have always said that day-to-day football matters rest with the football club. What you had in the end was, because of the extraordinary one-off nature of this and the magnitude of it, the board of directors were consulted on it.
“The vast majority of our supporters don’t think that way [about cancelling FoH pledges]. We saw people online saying that it’s a pledge for life, stop being daft, this is something different. We could see what was being said.”
The next decision for the board is who to recruit. Cathro’s replacement must galvanise a squad which looked devoid of belief at times and a fanbase which had lost all faith.
“Knowing Ann, she will sit back, take a period of reflection now, probably with Craig, and discuss where we’re going to go from here. Putting your business hat on, you say results on the pitch are the priority. Absolutely. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed watching teams that entertain. I remember coming out of matches when we had a front three all below 5ft 9ins – Robertson, Colquhoun and Crabbe. Those matches just seemed to flow constantly and it was great stuff to watch.
“It would be great if we were playing that style of football because we seemed to be heading that way when Ian was appointed – back three, flying full-backs, getting through midfield and going forward quickly. That was everything I fancied as a supporter.”
In very brief clips, Cathro’s team did carry that swashbuckling style. Not often enough even to warrant a stay of execution. The Hearts board clearly felt they had no choice. Now they must make the correct choice to replace him.