Other than the timing — Dunfermline’s cup game was on July 29, meaning Cathro had been fired before the league season started — it all seemed entirely routine.
In Scotland, as in every league, managers are fired with numbing regularity. Until the start of November, Scotland’s clubs were dismissing one a week: 13 weeks of the season, 13 managers gone. In a country with only 42 teams across its four divisions, it was quite a rate, but hardly unusual. In 2015, UEFA examined 60 leagues across the continent and found that in 44 of them, more than half the clubs changed managers at some point in the season.
It is a brief, brutal profession, and especially so for newcomers: In England, from 60 percent to 70 percent of first-time managers never get another head job: One strike and, more often than not, you are out. Craig Shakespeare, who started the season as Leicester City manager but has now accepted a return to life as an assistant, can attest to that. So Cathro was, on the surface, just a statistic, no different from dozens of others in his position in Britain and hundreds more across Europe.
Except that, in one key respect, he was different. From the moment Hearts appointed Cathro in December 2016, he found himself, unwittingly but not entirely unexpectedly, in the middle of a culture war. Cathro was Scottish soccer’s great experiment.
His significance lay in his background. In much of Europe, the notion that a coach does not have to have been a player is uncontroversial: Maurizio Sarri, a career coach, leads Serie A with Napoli; Germany’s Bundesliga has a whole phalanx of bright young managers with no playing experience, led by Hoffenheim’s Julian Nagelsmann; Portugal has produced, in recent years, not only José Mourinho but Andre Villas-Boas, both of whom found life rather easier on the touchline than the field.
In Scotland, as in England, however, a playing career is still considered a prerequisite, and Cathro did not have one. All he had was more than a decade of elite coaching experience, starting as a teenager in his native Dundee, in Portugal, Spain and then, with Newcastle, in the Premier League and the Championship.
To some that was his appeal: a native Nagelsmann, an outsider who might be able to shake up the moribund world of Scottish soccer. To others, it was his fatal flaw. How could he expect to command if he had never served?
Kris Boyd, a journeyman striker, witheringly described Cathro as one of the modern breed of coaches who simply “open their laptop” to plan a session. Stephen Craigan, a former player and now a television analyst, scoffed at the idea that Cathro was a “football pioneer.” “He is not Thomas Edison,” Craigan said. “He didn’t invent the light bulb.”
That Cathro had never made any such claim did not seem to matter. “The negativity was a reaction to the positivity,” he said. “They were reacting to the idea I was some sort of genius kid. There was a false sense of me considering myself something.”
He knew, of course, that there would be a “mixed reaction” to his appointment, the sort he would not have received had he “played for a second division team for 10 years,” but he rejected outright how he was framed. Cathro never considered himself an outsider.
“I have still been on the inside,” he said. “I was there after a big victory in the semifinals of the Portuguese Cup, and I was there when there was a halftime scrap beginning in the Premier League. I did not kick a ball and I did not throw a punch, but I was part of the work. I had felt it.”
He is adamant he never felt his message was not getting through to his players. The charge that he could not communicate — that he was reclusive, aloof, only comfortable in front of his laptop — stemmed from a “preconceived image of me that some people had decided on without looking at my work,” he said. “It was not even close to the truth.”
He “never felt a barrier” with the players at Hearts because of his background. “They believed in it, even though we never had the validation of results.” Tony Watt, a striker who left the club soon after Cathro arrived, said the coach “knew how to get inside someone’s head.” Cathro said another player told him he had been contacted by a journalist asking “what this kid was like, as though I had fallen from the moon.”
Cathro knew the “sideshow” of his appointment made some at Hearts feel uncomfortable, but he always felt he could overcome the resistance, and quiet the criticism, with time. “My feeling was to dismiss everything, wash it away, in the belief that it would stop if I won,” he said.
He did not win, though, or at least he did not win enough. Looking back, Cathro highlights his third game in charge as the crucial one: Hearts led by 2-0 at halftime, and he felt “the whole thing was alive, we were confident, tall, this is going to be good,” but somehow his team contrived to lose, 3-2. “That was the night everything should have stopped,” Cathro said. “But it became the night the fire grew.”
The doubts, from then on, simply grew louder; the flames licked higher. “It created a climate that was difficult for everybody,” he said. Hearts finished fifth in Scotland’s Premier League, some 60 points behind the perennial champion Celtic.
By late July, Cathro sensed decisions had been made. Dunfermline’s second goal simply validated them. Scotland’s great experiment seemed to be over, the modernists routed by the traditionalists, and Cathro’s managerial career — statistically, at least — along with it.
That is not how he thinks his story, whatever its wider ramifications, will end. Cathro has spent the last six months analyzing everything he did at Hearts in granular detail: He has been through every training session, every game, every news conference, every interview. “It’s shone light on areas I need to work on,” he said. “I’ve looked at each part of how I project myself to everyone who is looking.”
He has produced a blueprint of how he wants his teams to play, with and without the ball, that he has handed to every club who has expressed an interest in his services. He has put together a few videos, too. That way, he says, “they know exactly what they are buying from me, and I know my job is to deliver that.”
He will take his time over his next move; too much of his young career, he says, has been spent “in a rush.” It most likely will not be in Scotland, but there will be a next move, he is sure of that.
“I’m not a broken man or anything,” he said. “I remember saying while I was at Hearts that no matter what happened, I was not going to lose any conviction in what I believe, how I think, what I do. I haven’t.” His story is not yet over, and nor is the battle of ideas that it has come to represent. Now, he feels a little older, a little wiser. Next time, it will not be such an experiment.