So far in this series, we have looked at managers with track records that suggest bigger and better things. Our next subject, Ian Cathro of Hearts of Midlothian, is as new as he looks. The consensus is out on the new manager. Yet it’s hard to remember the last time a 30-year-old caused so much consternation just by being young.
The first thing to note is that Cathro is the youngest top-flight manager ever in Scotland. The redhead began his career as the head of the Dundee United youth program at age 22. Craig Levein, Heart’s director of football, worked at Dundee United then and noted Cathro’s promise early on.
He spent time with the Scottish FA then took an assistant position with Rio Ave (Portugal). Press reports note he learned his coaching style here under Nuno Santo, who he followed to Valencia. At Valencia, Santo led the team to a Champions League place.
Cathro’s next stop was more familiar ground as he took an assistant’s role to Steve McLaren at Newcastle. There he was so well regarded that when McLaren left and Rafa Benitez was hired, the Spanish manager kept Cathro on his staff.
In December 2016, Hearts Manager Robbie Neilson left the club to take the manager’s job at MK Dons. Levein reached into his past and tabbed the young Cathro as the next manager. On its face, the hiring should not have been controversial. Neilson himself was hired primarily for his work as a youth coach.
The hiring of such a young, cerebral manager however immediately set off a storm in the more conservative Scottish game. Kris Boyd, the Scottish national team player, used his weekly column to blast Cathro’s hiring. Boyd and Cathro went through their coaching license course together and that left Boyd without much admiration for the Hearts manager. “He’s probably not been this excited since FIFA 17 came out on PlayStation,” he wrote in his column.
Early on, Hearts’ results played into this criticism. The club stumbled to a 1-3-1 record in December. This included a home loss to Aberdeen where the manager praised his men for being drawn at halftime instead of down 4-0. Since then, the results improved. The club advanced in the Scottish Cup with a result over Raith Rovers and are 2-1 in the league. This includes a 4-1 thrashing of Rangers at home. The club sits fourth in the table, five points off second.
What is a 30-year-old manager like? Cathro is, as noted, an intellectual but also has a great sense of humor. When asked why he wears a hat so often, he noted it was to disguise his “forthcoming baldness“. Yet he has a sense of self that is seen often in older managers, something he attributes to his mentors. As he noted in his BBC interview:
You reach a point where a combination of knowledge and experience brings comfort and calmness and clarity and those are the things that allow him to make good decisions more often than not. From them, I learned how to be a coach, I learned how to be a manager. From Nuno, I learned a little bit of how to be a man.
Ian Cathro is still early in his career. Yet what he’s achieved so far, and with whom, makes him someone to watch.