Ian Cathro is not your regular Scottish manager. At the age of just 30, Cathro has been appointed Hearts’ new boss following the departure of Robbie Neilson, who left the club to join English side MK Dons last week. In doing so, Cathro has become the Scottish Premiership’s youngest ever manager.
Interestingly, he joins a league that already contains a host of young managers. Martin Canning at Hamilton Academical is 35, Richie Foran at Inverness is a year older at 36 while Alan Archibald at Partick Thistle and Paul Hartley at Dundee are 38 and 40-years-old respectively.
But Ian Cathro is different. He is different because unlike any of the other young managers listed above, Cathro has never played football to a professional level. He has never even been a manager before. Indeed, this will be Cathro’s first managerial position, in any level of football, anywhere.
So how did Cathro get to this position, as manager of one of Scotland’s biggest clubs?
Born in Dundee in 1986, in his youth Cathro played football with a number of small Scottish sides such as Forfar and Brechin City but a potential career as a player was ruined by injury. Instead, Cathro took to coaching and by the age of 22 the Scot had worked his way up to become the head of Dundee United’s youth academy.
In 2012 a chance encounter with former Portuguese goalkeeper Nuno Santos, who at the time was the manager at Portuguese side Rio Ave, led to Cathro swapping Scotland for more sunnier shores, something that British players or coaches rarely do. Cathro was hosting a coaching session at the SFA in Glasgow and Santos, who was attending the course, was so impressed by the Scot that he asked him to be his assistant at Rio Ave. In Portugal, Rio Ave thrived and ended up reaching two domestic cup finals in 2014.
Rio Ave’s achievements received adulation and Spanish giants Valencia were quick to take notice. They hired Santos as their new manager and Cathro soon joined him at the Mestalla, again as the Portuguese’s assistant. Santos only lasted a season at Valencia and was sacked in the summer of 2015, Cathro later resigned from his position and the two have since gone their separate ways.
Cathro’s next step was a return to Britain where he was appointed assistant manager at Newcastle United during the first few weeks of Steve McLaren’s ill-fated spell at the club. Newcastle were relegated that season and McClaren was sacked in March 2016 but replacement manager Rafael Benitez kept Cathro as his assistant. Indeed, Cathro was the only member of McClaren’s former staff who kept their jobs.
Around Europe, Cathro has developed a fine reputation as a coach but management has always been something that the Scot has wanted to get into. For him, it was simply a case of waiting for the right opportunity.
At Hearts, Cathro will find a familiar setup. In Craig Levein, Hearts’ current Director of Football, Cathro will be reunited with the man who he worked with closely at Dundee United. Levein was United manager then but since joining Hearts in a boardroom capacity in 2014, the former Scotland boss has implemented a similar youth coaching method to the one Cathro employed during his time in charge of the academy.
Hearts too seem to be a good fit for Cathro. Since they fell into administration and were relegated to the Championship in 2014, Hearts and new owner Ann Budge have sensibly placed their faith in youth, on and off the pitch. Robbie Neilson, Cathro’s predecessor, won promotion back to the Premiership with Hearts in 2015 before guiding them to a 3rd place finish last year at the age of just 35.
Now that Neilson has moved on, it appears that Hearts will look to continue with the same blueprint but that isn’t to say that Cathro’s left-field appointment hasn’t been met with criticism by some sections of the Scottish press. In his Scottish Sun column, former Rangers and Scotland striker Kris Boyd launched a scathing, and weirdly condescending, attack on Cathro, even suggesting that ‘he hasn’t been this excited since FIFA 17 came out on the PlayStation’.
In his criticism, Boyd focussed on Cathro’s age and inexperience, questioning whether he had the man management skills to deal with a dressing room full of players. According to Boyd, Cathro is out of his depth.
Unfortunately, in his column Boyd has highlighted why Cathro might struggle during his time in the capital. It shows that there are sections of players and fans that will not embrace anything new. Here is a young, innovative coach who has worked hard to rise through the sport and yet, before he has even sat down to take charge of his first game, he has been written off by those too stubborn and stuck in their regimented and outdated view of football to give him a chance.
And yet we ask the Scottish national team is failing…