IAN CATHRO hesitates and runs a finger around the rim of the Coke can in front of him. He mulls over the word, authenticating its veracity and considering the consequences. “Controversial,” he declares, ratifying the best term to describe himself.
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Opinions, for example, and Cathro’s are incendiary. “We don’t allow players to be technically brilliant in this country,” he states, debunking the dogma behind the zeitgeist that Scotland lacks talented footballers. “To develop players with imagination and creativity, kids need to be allowed to make mistakes but we don’t give them the opportunity to express themselves. We’d rather prescribe what they do.”
Cathro has experienced it. He has been on the pitch while coaches bawled at him to play it down the line, to move it in one or to switch it. He realises that didn’t help him learn how to become a better footballer but he knows what might have and is determined to put those ideas into practice in his new role as junior academy manager at Dundee United.
His concept is simple; to become a footballer, you first must master the ball. Yet the staggering truth is that this is not currently the case. Craig Levein, the United manager, talks of young players arriving in his first-team squad with an unacceptable skill shortfall, of having to spend time working on basics rather than the specifics of team shape and set plays. Players are being asked to run before they can walk and it is not just happening at Tannadice. Levein, though, is addressing the issue, two years of investigation convincing him to overhaul the youth structure at the club.
Central to that is Cathro, employed to ensure that the 9-14 age-group are equipped with the necessary basic skills. “It’s a response to changes in society,” he explains. “Kids are not playing as much football so we’re giving them back the touches they’d have got knocking the ball against a wall or playing 15-a-side with jumpers for goalposts until you were shouted at to come in for your tea or because it was dark.
That tends to not exist any more so we need to deal with that and give them the information they would have once discovered themselves. There is a window of time for developing these skills and if you’re older than 13, your progress is limited. It’s simply a case of putting everything in the right order.”
The Dundonian’s doctrine has distilled for seven years. On the books at Forfar and Brechin, a undiagnosed recurring knee injury forced him to stop playing – “I was never a good player, it wasn’t a major sob story” – and left him disillusioned with a game he was never entirely enamoured with.
University beckoned but a combination of his mother and the school PE department cajoled Cathro into attending a coaching course with United. It didn’t go well.
“I was s**t at it,” he exclaims, laughing. “I’m no brain of Britain, but I’d always been able to do something if I really tried and it got to me that I was so bad so I kept coming back to prove a point to myself. Then I was getting motivated by other people being better than me until I got to the point where the process excited me.”
So much so, that his business management class at school became little more than an opportunity to scribble down and develop his ideas of how to turn what he perceived as boring drills into an engaging coaching course called Master the Ball, Master the Game.
Using first-year students as subjects, Cathro put his ideas into practice and soon found himself the owner of a thriving business and a full-time coach.
Noting the level of technique of those under his tutelage – describing them as being “light years” ahead of their peers – Levein began to ask questions and discovered a candid, committed and confident individual in his own image. The offer of a position soon followed and, two months in, Cathro is working 12-hour days, seven days a week to help establish the new structure at Tannadice.
“I’ve never had a life,” he admits of his unenviable workload. “It’s just the way I’m wired. Some mornings I wake up and think ‘I hate football’ but you get through it and as soon as you do something that works, you spend 10 minutes thinking ‘that was good’. But then I’m looking how to improve it because there is no point in these kids being technically ahead at 13 if they’re not going to play when they reach 19. We have to make sure this means something long-term.”
It is a remarkably mature attitude for a 23-year-old. Cathro rolls his eyes at the observation, sensing the issue of his age is about to come under discussion again, as it has throughout his coaching career. “I hate it,” he says. “I understand why people make an issue of it but I don’t see it as relevant. There has always been sniping and niggling and I got through it because I thought I knew it all but now I know I’m good at what I do and that’s all that matters.”
How that is judged externally is a different matter. While the coaches can monitor development on a monthly basis, the average supporter demands the evidence be displayed in the first team – something that will not happen until the nine-year-olds in the system reach their late teens. It is only at that point that Cathro will take any interest in what is happening to the senior side.
“I like football but I don’t know who plays for who or what the score was last week,” he admits, conceding that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be involved in the professional game.
“It’s not that I’m not interested but to me the first team is a very different thing. Some people who work with clubs are drawn to that, but that’s not my job, I’m here to be with the nine to 14-year-olds and do the best I can with them. Any time I get is spent educating me to make me better, to make the programme better, to make the kids better.”
Cathro is certainly doing that, even if he is courting controversy along the way.
Levein noted the level of technique of those under his tutelage, describing them as being ‘light years’ ahead of their peers