BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
CRAIG LEVEIN has launched a staunch defence of Hearts head coach Ian Cathro but confesses that the challenges and stature of the job at Tynecastle have proved a steep learning curve for the rookie boss.
The former Valencia and Newcastle assistant has endured a testing start to his managerial career, winning just six of his 26 games in charge since taking the reins from Robbie Neilson in December.
A woeful January transfer window, a chastening Scottish Cup exit against fierce rivals Hibs and a mediocre fifth-placed finish in the Premiership have done little to assuage the fears of those who felt the appointment of the 30-year-old was a gamble.
Director of football Levein did not shy away from the failings of Hearts, and Cathro himself, this term but is adamant he remains “excited” about the future in Gorgie now that the young boss has navigated his baptism of fire.
Levein said: “We go through a long process before we decide who gets the job and the reasons for Ian haven’t changed. If we’re going to appoint a young coach, we need to give him time to learn – and I think he’s learned a lot of stuff really quickly.
“That was the same with Robbie [Neilson]. My experience is that it takes time.
“It’s the game, it’s the business we’re in and I understand the criticism. There’s no point in me bleating. If we’re not winning, we’re open to criticism.
“But Ian is resilient and, as long as he’s picking things up, which I see every day, I’m happy with that.
“It is fairly simply, Ian has never been on the touchline in Scotland other than at Hearts. Every league has its way of playing. Scottish football has this kind of unique way of playing.
“If you look outside the Old Firm, every team plays the same way. Aberdeen are the best at it, but they all play the same way. They go forward quickly, it comes back into midfield, second balls, it goes wide, it goes in the box.
“If you can’t deal with that constant bombardment and pressure then you lose goals. I think Ian’s philosophy at the start was ‘we’ll be better than everyone else’.
“He has realised that if we don’t deal with what other people can deal with then we can’t impose ourselves.
“For me the attraction of Ian is, once we get beyond that, I get excited about the possibilities. Once he gets this bit organised then the rest will follow.”
Levein has, however, confirmed that the club will reassess the situation next term should the malaise of this season carry over into Cathro’s first full campaign.
He continued: “If we start next season poorly, although I don’t want to speculate on that, then we’ll look at things again. But what if we win our first 10 matches? That is just as valid a question.”
While Cathro’s has been chastised for Hearts’ form, he was not helped by two consecutive transfer windows which, Levein accepts, were largely failures.
Last summer their marquee signings included Connor Sammon, Faycal Rherras and the loan capture of Tony Watt.
Having seen the upheaval of a change of management, Levein and Cathro then embarked on a disastrous winter shopping spree, bringing in Alexandros Tziolis, Tasos Avlonitis, Lennard Sowah, Andraz Struna, Dylan Bikey, Moha El Ouriachi, Aaron Hughes, Malaury Martin and Isma Goncalves.
Only Hughes, Goncalves and Martin remain, ensuring Hearts will seek to do the majority of their business in the British market this summer.
Levein continued: “[Recruitment] has worked fairly well in four of the windows since administration. I would say last summer we got one or two right, but the last two haven’t been great.
“Of course I’m in charge of the football department. I won’t walk away from that.
“If someone wants a player who has played at a good level – say Alex Tziolis, for example – to come here for our top salary, which looks to me like good value, then is it my position to say ‘you are not getting him’? I’d be better picking the team if I was doing that.
“These things need to be a shared responsibility. Ian will come to me and say ‘I want to sign this player’ and I also need to be able to allow him to use his imagination and get his ideas across.
“We will still continue to use contacts, while looking at another way of recruiting which we are starting to implement. We have got access to a company who are finding players for us through stats. We are using the two things now.
“This window will be the first experiment as such and it looks promising. We are certainly getting names thrown up that we didn’t know about.”
Levein has set a target of a fourth-place finish for the Jambos next season, insisting that they will not seek to outspend Aberdeen and, understandably, will not have a budget close to either Rangers or runaway champions Celtic.
He added: “If we don’t get fourth then we will be disappointed. Finishing fifth is something that has happened regularly here, but it’s not where we want to be, it’s not where we wanted to be this season. The important thing is to get better for next season.”