BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
IAN CATHRO oversaw his first training session at Rio Ave without speaking a word of the local language thanks to a mixture of manic gestures and pidgin Portuguese – yet still managed to win over the players.
So the new Hearts head coach has dismissed the notion that he could struggle to cope with the demands of managing the dressing room at Tynecastle.
Cathro’s appointment has been met by scepticism in some quarters, most notably Jamie Fullarton and Kilmarnock striker Kris Boyd, who described the 30-year-old as “that shy lad” following time spent together on an SFA coaching course.
Boyd also stated that he would require “man management skills, which is part of the game he knows absolutely nothing about”.
However, Cathro has reflected on his experiences of coaching players at Rio Ave in Portugal, Spanish giants Valencia and, most recently, Newcastle – and is relishing the opportunity to address “doubts” regarding his appointment.
“Opinion is one of the things that make football so interesting,” he said of Boyd’s swipe. “That is completely fine.
“In short, yes, there is risk. Any new manager coming into a club has a percentage of risk. Something I want to be really clear with is: I understand those doubts.
“I accept the responsibility of that risk but in the weeks and months some of them will disappear. And a little bit further down the line they will all be gone.
“Not much bothers me. I’m quite direct and quite a focused person. There’s a lot of noise but I tend to only hear the things that allow me to make a difference.
“I don’t think I really have [encountered resistance] from players. Certainly in Portugal that was never the case. We had a really strange situation, I went there without a word of Portuguese and, a couple of days in, I’m told to run a whole training session with very few English speakers in there.
“So you either do it or you don’t – you step up or you don’t. My very poor – grammatically incorrect or completely wrong – Portuguese was made up for by enthusiasm and gesticulations! We were fine from then on.”
Indeed, Cathro is adamant he will welcome inquisitions from his stars, insisting that will only serve to make them better players and make Hearts a more formidable force.
“That enquiring attitude isn’t driven by players, it is part of me,” he explained. “I want to explain things and have conversations about football.
“In any situation, in any dressing room, you have players who have come from different backgrounds, with different youth development and brought up with different concepts.
“You talk to a Dutch player who want to go man-to-man and press, you go to an older British lad who wants to be on the edge of his box. Then you might have a Spanish lad who wants to control space and press where we can.
“You have those things going on and you need to be able to take them and say ‘this is what we are doing – and this is why’. The whole thing breaks if there is no collective clarity.
“You don’t achieve anything by just saying ‘do that . . . grrr!’ It just doesn’t work. You might need to speak different languages and I don’t know what ‘grrrr’ is in a different language!”
He does not expect to revolutionise those methods after taking his first steps into management – however he is under no illusions about the demands that he will be placed under.
“The main difference will be decision making,” he added. “I’m now the person who makes all the decisions all of the time.
“I’ve always done the work. I’ve just been handing it over to other managers before. The way I work on a day to day basis won’t really change that much, it is just the other things that will be different.”
While reluctant to place on record that Hearts can win their first top-flight title since 1960, the sub-text was clear that he believes the Jambos should be targeting the summit of the Scottish game.
He repeated the phrase “there are no limits” numerous times, adding: “I’m sitting here with a mentality of ‘let’s not say no to anything’.
“I don’t want people to be living with the idea that you get to a point, and that’s it because you think ‘well, I’m going to hit the roof. No. Don’t. Burst through the roof.
“The point is to go in search of where our limit is – and not be trapped by anything that is just historical.”
Cathro’s dugout debut comes in the form of Saturday’s trip to Ibrox – a contest that could be perceived as a baptism of fire in a fraught fight for second spot in the Premiership.
The Dundonian coach, however, is adamant the trip to Govan is the perfect way to size up his squad an accelerate the development process.
“It’s an ideal start,” continued Cathro. “You always can get a bit more value out of the analysis and the outcome of these sorts of games.
“There are a few more eyes on you and it’s a good challenge, playing away from home in a strong environment. It may help us speed up how quickly we get each other and how quickly we can learn about everyone.”
Meanwhile, Cathro has revealed he received the Rafa Benitez seal of approval before taking the reins at Tynecastle – but is adamant he has been ready to strike out on his own for years.
The 30-year-old was one of the Spaniard’s assistants at Newcastle during their surge to the summit of the Championship this term and discussed the prospect of a switch to Gorgie with the experienced boss.
Benitez has never stood in the way of his assistants becoming managers in their own rights, from Pako Ayestaran to Fabio Pecchia, and he had no doubt that Cathro was ready to be a No.1.
Former Dundee United youth coach Cathro boasts an impressive CV following stints as Nuno Espirito Santo’s right-hand man at Rio Ave and Valencia and spells working under Steve McClaren and Rafa at St James’ Park.
He will now seek to establish himself as a boss after he was appointed on a three-and-a-half year deal, with Northern Ireland coach Austin MacPhee yesterday named as his assistant to complete a youthful, innovative management duo.
“Rafa was supportive of this idea,” said Cathro. “His thoughts were that I should make sure it was the right place. If I felt it was right, then he said it was the right time. I feel this is the right place.
“Rafa and others at Newcastle have been very supportive and have said ‘you’re ready’. That was the message I got from the players, too.
“To start as a manager is a big step but it was mainly about where. I’ve been ready a while.
“Rafa has been a really positive experience. He’s an incredible professional with outstanding experience and intelligence. He can make things make sense really easily.
“He’s been very supportive of me in this situation. I’ve taken a lot from him and his staff.”