Ian Cathro sparked a culture war in Scotland — then wrote a book. Now he’s ready to manage again

‘O Meu Jogo’

Ian Cathro places the book on the table. ‘My game’ — that’s the translation from Portuguese — is not for sale. The author wrote it for himself as much as anyone.

“I spent five years working on this,” Cathro says.

“I suppose it’s a personal project and a way of committing your thoughts, checking up on your convictions and testing yourself. You can’t separate these things because I don’t think there is a ‘you’ as a coach and a ‘you’ as a person, because then it starts to smell a bit like bull***t to me. The guys who are the absolute best at what they do, it’s because they’re authentic.”

The 134-page A4 book includes tactical diagrams and innovations — the benefits of playing centre-backs on their unnatural side among them — as well as off-the-field topics, such as the importance of family.

“I don’t know if I’m gonna win,” Cathro says. “I don’t know if I’m gonna lose. But this has got everything about how the team is gonna work, how we’re gonna train, how we’re going to adapt, how I view football, how we view the development of the club.”

He looks up and there is the hint of a smile. “Was it entirely for that reason that I wrote it? It was probably a little bit of therapy for me too.”

Cathro rarely gives interviews (I’ve been chasing this one for longer than it took him to write his book) and has a fascinating backstory.

Aged 37, he has been coaching for more than 20 years, going back to when he was a secondary-school pupil in his hometown of Dundee, sitting in a business management class and visualising passages of play for the training sessions he would take later that day. Coaching quickly became his raison d’etre. By his admission, he was obsessed.

His school teachers, Cathro says, “just accepted it”.

But Scottish football didn’t.

In December 2016, Cathro was named head coach of Hearts in the Scottish Premiership. He was 30 years old at the time and, according to Cathro’s Wikipedia page, the appointment “caused some debate” within Scottish football.

“Yeah, that’s apt,” Cathro says, laughing.

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Cathro at his Hearts unveiling (Andrew Milligan/PA Images via Getty Images)

“Caused some debate” is quite the understatement. Hearts’ decision to turn to Cathro provoked outrage among some ex-players in particular.

A 29-second clip of Stephen Craigan, the former Motherwell defender, arguing with Chris Sutton, live on television, gives you an insight into the strength of feeling.

“He’s never had a job before!” Craigan said, his face contorted in anger as Sutton responded by accusing the man sitting next to him of jealousy.

Cathro, for the record, has never had a job outside of football. Not only that but before he had spent the previous four years coaching in the top flight in Portugal and Spain under Nuno Espirito Santo, and at Newcastle United with Rafael Benitez.

He had not, however, been a manager or played the game professionally and the latter was clearly a problem for some people in Scotland. As was the fact that Cathro was so young and — brace yourself for this next bit — he did some of his work on a laptop.

Kris Boyd, the former Rangers and Scotland striker, used all that and more to mock Cathro in a newspaper column published 48 hours before he was confirmed as Hearts manager. The opening line read: “He’s probably not been this excited since FIFA 17 came out on PlayStation.”

There was plenty more where that came from, rooted in personal criticism — “crass demeaning of someone who deliberately ploughed his own furrow” is how Ewan Murray, the Guardian newspaper’s Scottish football correspondent, described it at the time.

Cathro shakes his head. “The moment when I thought this has gone properly crazy was when somebody told me that someone had said, ‘He didn’t invent the light bulb’.

“What have I done to suggest that I did that?”

“I had the misfortune of being the example of this thing that may disturb job opportunities for other people — this culture war that maybe hadn’t quite made its way to Scottish football, and I became the thing they needed to defeat.”

If that was the case, “they” succeeded. Cathro was sacked at the start of the following season. He lasted seven months.

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(Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Seven years later, he is contemplating returning to management.

It is tempting to say that time has been a good healer in that respect, but using that phrase implies Cathro was hurt by what happened at Hearts.

He was angry rather than hurt — really angry — and also annoyed with himself for being so impatient in the first place.

Growing up in Dundee, Cathro “wasn’t the super-talented kid” who was on the path to football stardom. He was part of the youth setup at Forfar Athletic and Brechin City, and suspects he might have been able to carve out a career as a lower-league player in Scotland. A knee injury prompted a rethink and, with the encouragement of his school PE department, Cathro fell into coaching.

His first session as a coach left him feeling underwhelmed. After the second, he was hooked.

“I just became obsessed,” Cathro says. “I was probably a bit peeved about how I trained as a kid. The ability to express yourself was really limited. There were maybe four or five things you could do in a football game: you get in their faces, you win the first battle, you don’t take risks, ‘If in doubt put it out’, ‘Turn them early’. And I was the young kid who was going: ‘Nah, that can’t be it’.”

In the words of Jack Souttar, whose sons Harry and John were coached by Cathro before going on to play professionally, the young Scot was “a bit of a maverick”.

Cathro smiles. “I was probably on a bit of a crusade, and the whole thing was proving to these kids and everybody around them…”

He pauses for a moment. “It was driven from — and this probably speaks to some of the things that we’ll end up talking about later — I’d never had a good relationship with people in Scottish football. I wasn’t going around telling everybody what you’re doing is wrong. But the fact that I was doing something different was, subconsciously, telling everybody that I think what you’re doing is wrong. That wasn’t my intention. I was just doing what I wanted to do.”

At ‘Cathro Clinic’, the private football academy he set up in Dundee, the focus was on individual player development. Cathro prioritised touches of the ball, encouraged boys to play with freedom, set them skill-based challenges to incorporate into their game, and urged them to reach for the stars.

At the same time, Cathro had his own dreams. Although Dundee United, the Scottish Premiership club on Cathro’s doorstep, were impressed by his coaching and gave him a role in their youth department, the ambition was always to work overseas.

Two meetings with Portuguese coaches in the space of 12 months proved pivotal.

The first was with Andre Villas-Boas in 2010, not long after he had taken over as Porto’s manager.

“That was a turning point,” Cathro says. “I left Porto’s training ground and decided I’m not a youth coach anymore.”

But the “Sliding Doors moment”, to borrow Cathro’s description, came the following summer when he attended a UEFA B Licence course at Largs, in Ayrshire, where he was in the company of some big names in Scottish football (Duncan Ferguson and Paul Hartley among them) but ended up hitting it off with a former Portuguese goalkeeper by the name of Nuno.

“I looked like the 24-year-old who nobody knows,” Cathro recalls. “But in my mind, I was the most experienced coach on the course, and I had done the most coaching of everybody. I probably thought I was the best one on the course and that probably came across — not when we’re sitting eating our lunch, but when they say, ‘Go out and take a session’, I spoke to people the way that I would. So there’s a big contrast probably, and that can be difficult. And I know that’s what got Nuno’s attention.

“He saw this quiet kid, expecting nothing, and then he goes and does his session and all of a sudden, ‘What the hell?’. And it was a combination of the way that I was, how I would work and speak — the assertiveness, but also that the exercises were different. He looked at what I was doing and thought, ‘That looks like a high-level training session. The other stuff looks like what you do on the course to get through the course’. And that’s when we started to speak.”

As much as Nuno was impressed with Cathro’s session, he had some constructive criticism for him too. “He said to me, ‘Are you maybe a bit arrogant?’.”

And was he?

“I don’t know,” Cathro replies. “But I kept my distance (with others) — there was something in the air.

“Maybe I did have an arrogance and Nuno prodded that straight away. That was probably the bit that made me most interested to be having more conversation with him. With every bit of the course that passed, we just spent more time talking, and that changed my life in the end.”

A year later, Cathro took a phone call from Nuno saying he was going into management and asking if he wanted to work with him. It was at Rio Ave, a Portuguese Primeira Liga club. Cathro couldn’t pack his bag quickly enough — and then reality hit.

“I vividly remember walking down the steps — the good old Ryanair steps — putting my foot on the ground and thinking, ‘I don’t know one word of Portuguese. I have no idea where I’m going. Do I take the next step?’.”

Adapting to his new life was interesting. There were formal language lessons in a classroom alongside future Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak, while the football jargon was learned at Nuno’s home, where Cathro was given a roof over his head. “I remember sitting on his balcony preparing training sessions, and every now and then I’d go, ’How do you say that?’”

If Cathro was assessing players that he knew little about, it seems inevitable that they were doing the same with him. Did he sense that?

“Yeah, and I think that was normal,” Cathro says. “There were probably people in the club doing that as well, and I understand it. Why would a Portuguese club appoint a mid-twenties Scottish coach to the staff? That’s something for Nuno to explain and it was difficult for him to explain. They’re not going to know anything about me. So they just see the profile and make a judgement based on that. And then they know he doesn’t speak the language. And then you’re weighing those things up and they’ve got to be going, ‘That’s strange’. But that just passed.”

Cathro ended up thriving, so much so that Nuno described him as a “genius”. By the end of the first season, Cathro was fluent in Portuguese and, more significantly, an integral part of a coaching team that led Rio Ave to two domestic cup finals and European qualification.

Nuno’s stock was rising fast and when he took over at Valencia in the summer of 2014, it was inevitable that Cathro would join him. A fourth-place finish in La Liga followed, earning a place in the Champions League in the 2015-16 season, but Cathro and Nuno were about to part.

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(Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)

With his father seriously ill, Cathro wanted to be closer to Dundee, prompting him to take a coaching job with Newcastle United, initially under the management of Steve McClaren and later working with Benitez. “It was a personal decision, which became a great professional option, which is probably why it doesn’t look like a personal decision,” Cathro says.

All the while, the desire to be a manager burned fiercely.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing but hearing Cathro’s backstory, it seems strange to think he chose to take his first job as a head coach in Scotland, the country he had been so keen to leave behind in search of a football culture that aligned with his ideology.

Picture the path of least resistance and Cathro was travelling in totally the opposite direction.

He listens and nods. “I think the exact same way,” Cathro says.

“Fundamentally, it was impatience.

“And this is probably the hardest bit to make sense of… obviously, if the aim of the game is to prepare a career and make smart decisions so you just go success, success, success, success, success, Hearts was a huge mistake. If that’s the question, of course I regret it. I should have never worked in Scottish football. It wasn’t the appropriate environment at that time, it may never be the appropriate environment.

“But if the question is different, ‘Do you regret it from the point of view of how it’s helped you improve and get yourself to a point where maybe the path is: success, learn, hit the floor, figure it out, step forward, focus, grow?’, then I can’t say that I regret doing it.”

Cathro won five, drew four and lost 13 of his 22 league matches in charge. In short, his record wasn’t good enough.

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(Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

In his mind, Cathro was ready to manage at that level but he wasn’t equipped, he says, to deal with all the noise.

“I couldn’t figure out how to process that. That took me off track. I was trying to navigate that and then you stop navigating the thing that you’re actually good at. That very quickly made me very angry, to the point where if there was a way out early on, I would have taken it.”

It says everything that Cathro’s appointment created such a stir in Scotland that the reaction to the reaction became a story.

He was, in the words of the New York Times journalist Rory Smith, “Scottish football’s great experiment”.

Some people didn’t want to wait for the results though.

Aside from being obsessed with mentioning Cathro’s laptop and making the FIFA 17 jibe, Boyd described a man he had met on a coaching course but never seen in a work environment as “way, way out of his depth”.

Jamie Fullarton, another former Scottish Premiership player, questioned Cathro’s social skills and whether he even coached at Newcastle (Matt Ritchie, who played for Newcastle and talked about the quality of Cathro’s training sessions, was probably better qualified on that subject).

As for Craigan, he was so irate about Cathro getting the Hearts job that he rowed with Sutton and started talking about light bulbs and Thomas Edison.

Did Cathro know that it was going to be like this? “I should have anticipated some of it, but no, I didn’t know that when I went in,” he says.

“It was 99 per cent bull***t to the point where, if I had money, I would have sued a couple of people because some of it was defamation. And then, afterwards, the anger that I felt continued a little bit because I’m thinking, ‘There’s other people. He’s losing games as well. What’s being said about this lad?’ — not that I wanted somebody else to get attacked.

“If I lose and the team’s a mess — and sometimes it was — that criticism is absolutely fine. But some of the other sketch-show ridicule and absolute nonsense because they obviously felt safe enough to come at me — no, that’s not cool.”

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Cathro recognises his own errors too. He went through a period of self-reflection after losing his job at Hearts and some of that made for uncomfortable viewing, both in terms of the football on the pitch and how he came across off it.

“The bit that was wholly on me was I had a couple of really, really bad moments with the press. And I’m sure there will be memes forever, which is fine because they can then get swung around to laughs in the future,” Cathro says. “But I struggled with that just because I couldn’t put the anger to the side. It kind of freezes you in some ways and then it’s not really you that comes across. The real version of me is doing everything I can to hold the anger in. Maybe you’re better off just letting the anger out.

“The people who actually knew me would look at some things and go: ‘Who’s that? What’s happened? Where are you? Just be yourself, will you?’. But I was so, so angry and you can’t function like that. Even having this conversation now, it’s really empowering.”

As for how Hearts performed, Cathro sounds more disappointed by that than anything else. “I didn’t even recognise some of the football, and that’s the hardest bit,” he says. “So if there’s critiques from that at a certain point, those are fair. But it goes back to that point — I wasn’t ready to deal with being in the middle of a culture war.”

Cathro lost his job at Hearts but he never lost his sense of humour.

Asked whether he was married when he was managing, Cathro laughs and replies: “No, I waited until I’d been ridiculed to such an extent that if she was to say yes, it’s a pretty solid yes!

“So a couple of weeks after leaving (Hearts) we went to Valencia, we hired bikes and after doing a couple of loops in the park, I stopped and proposed. I thought if she says yeah now she’s gonna stay. So that was that.”

Cathro is a father as well as a husband now and that, allied to another five years’ coaching experience, means that he has a much more rounded view of football and life. Less intensity, more clarity.

“I’ve got an off switch now and I enjoy pushing it,” he says. “I work smarter. Everything’s more clear to me. I know how I’m gonna be, how I’m gonna work. Football’s not gonna give me sleepless nights. I’m not gonna be that guy.”

His rehabilitation after Hearts started, and continued, alongside a familiar face. After taking 12 months out to reset, Cathro was reunited with Nuno at Wolves in 2018, where they spent three years together, finishing seventh in the Premier League in successive seasons, qualifying for Europe and coaching a team that produced some exhilarating football.

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(Jack Thomas – WWFC/Wolves via Getty Images)

When Cathro thinks back to that period, his eyes light up. He talks about the passing and movement patterns in such detail that you could be forgiven for thinking that he has just come off the training ground with Diogo Jota, Ruben Neves and Raul Jimenez. “It was special. Really special,” Cathro says.

The same can’t be said for their time together at Tottenham Hotspur, where it felt destined to go wrong from day one — or maybe that should be ‘day 72’, when Spurs ended an exhaustive managerial search by turning to Nuno. He was sacked after four months.

“You turn up on set but you’re in the wrong movie,” Cathro says. “I imagine everybody would probably reach the same conclusion. Every time there’s been connection and alignment, Nuno’s only had success, but it didn’t fit (at Spurs).”

It would be fair to say that working in the Middle East wasn’t what Cathro had in mind next, but Nuno’s appointment as the manager of Al Ittihad in 2022 took the Portuguese and his staff in that direction. After being sceptical initially, Cathro embraced the opportunity.

“It took me longer to get in the car to go to the airport to fly to Saudi Arabia than what it did to drive down to Enfield (Tottenham’s training ground). Nobody’s hiding that,” Cathro says.

“But nobody owns football. You don’t get to belittle somebody else’s love of football because it’s not a top-five league, or it’s not Western culture.

‘There was a learning process in that for me because I did have that attitude at first. I was probably a bit snobbish — football snobbish — of what I was going into. But that disappeared within three or four weeks.”

Although shade was hard to find on the training ground, success wasn’t; Al Ittihad won the Saudi Pro League in 2023 and Cathro took great satisfaction from seeing how much that title meant to the long-serving staff at the club.

Nuno was dismissed in November, though, and when he took over at Nottingham Forest the following month, Cathro decided to take a break. He had a wife and young daughter to get reacquainted with after his time in Saudi Arabia, a book to finish and a seven-year itch to scratch.

Is management definitely what he is going to do next? “Should what I think is the right opportunity come along, then yeah, I’m at a natural point for that,” Cathro replies.

He picks up his book again from the coffee table. “Like every person on the planet, I’ll have strengths and weaknesses,” Cathro says. “But it’ll be authentic, and there will be nobody more driven to be successful wherever I am.”

(Top photo: Stuart James/The Athletic)

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