Valencia is currently sitting fourth in La Liga and only two points behind current leaders Barcelona. They’ve already beaten champions Atletico Madrid and look like a decent shout for a Champions League spot on current form. Los Che is being coached by Nuno Santo and assisting him is a 28-year-old Scot who made his name coaching youth team football in Dundee.
Ian Cathro is one of the brightest coaches to have come out of the British Isles ,and if his career trajectory continues its spectacular course he could be on his way to bigger and better things. He has already come a long way from coaching young players at his own clinic before being brought in at the age of 23 to head up the Dundee United junior academy by Craig Levein. Levein sought out Cathro after discovering that youth footballers who had attended clinics held by the latter were better and more skilful than the prospects being produced by Dundee United themselves.
Cathro was instrumental in the development of Ryan Gauld, arguably the most talented Scottish player in a generation, as well as other starlets in Dundee’s youth academy. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Gauld decided to tread a similar path as Cathro in venturing to Portugal to further his footballing education.
Ian Cathro is somewhat of an anomaly, making an impression in the Scottish game despite not playing football professionally at any level. He feared that his lack of a playing background would hinder his opportunities of progressing up the ranks in the Scotland, despite being brought in by the Scottish Football Association to head the regional performance school in Dundee.
A coaching course organized by the SFA in 2009 saw Cathro come into contact with former Porto goalkeeper Nuno Santo. That meeting changed Cathro’s career as a football coach. Santo approached Cathro after the Scot had given a 15-minute session. Of the initial meeting Cathro said:
“He gave me one massive piece of praise and one massive piece of constructive criticism and that made him interesting to me. He was humble, open and direct with me to the point where I immediately realized that he was someone who could help me grow, both as a coach and a man.”
Santo was given the opportunity to coach Portuguese outfit Rio Ave in 2012 and reached out to Cathro appointing him as his assistant, much to the consternation of the SFA. From training youths Cathro was thrusted into the world of first team coaching.
In the two seasons Cathro was at Rio Ave as assistant coach, the club finished a respectable 6th and 11th in the Primeira Liga, as well as reaching the final of the Portuguese Cup and Portuguese League Cup in the 2013-14 season. On both occasions they lost to Benfica, but Rio Ave secured European football for the first time in their history qualifying for the Europa League.
The achievements of Rio Ave did not go unnoticed. Santo was primed to take over Sporting Braga and intended to bring his coaching staff, Cathro included, with him. However, Valencia swooped and appointed Santo as their head coach for the start of the 2014-15 season. Suddenly, Santo and Cathro found themselves tasked with bringing success to the Mestalla.
Such was Cathro’s focus on his responsibilities he didn’t take time to think that he was working at a major club in a top European league. Valencia’s first league match of the Santo regime was away to Sevilla, the game finished 1-1. During the build-up to the game Cathro recalled:
“I didn’t pause and take it all in. It’s probably partly because I’m so absorbed in the work. And also because my ambitions are beyond being an assistant. When the right time comes I want to work as my own man.
It’s a remarkable rise, especially given Cathro’s relative youth and lack of a playing background. The Scot is humble enough though not to consider this chapter of his football journey the start of his career.
“I’m in preparation phase. This is my Masters era at university in La Liga, for example. That’s what forces me not to have those moments of going, ‘Wow, I’m in the dugout of wherever,’” said Cathro to the Daily Record.
“I’ve never allowed myself to think ‘I’m here’ because it’s Nuno who is here.”
“This year is valuable. I could have stayed at home but this is preparation for my career. I asked myself what experience would be more valuable for when I’m 40 years old.”
“I decided it’s doing this job and working with players and coaches at a certain level. It’s working with a big club structure too. So many staff. So many aspects of the club. So many stresses. So many demands.”
“This experience is going to help my preparation if I can prove to be someone who can become a head coach at this level.”
This level-headedness will stand Cathro in good stead. The bravery to leave his comfort zone in Scotland and experience different footballing cultures displays a desire to learn, which should be lauded given the lack of British coaches seemingly unable or unwilling to ply their trade on the continent.
The experience in Portugal and Spain has also highlighted to the Valencia assistant coach the need to communicate effectively. Though Cathro is comfortable speaking Portuguese and is learning Spanish, he revealed that ideally his first experience as a head coach would be in an English speaking environment. He told the BBC.
“The two things I will need are a full pre-season to get my ideas across and to be somewhere where English is the first language. I can express myself confidently in Portuguese and I’m getting better with Spanish, but if I’m going to be in charge, I need to be able to communicate properly.”
Cathro’s immediate focus will be to deliver success to Valencia as part of Santo’s coaching team. If Los Che can win a trophy and qualify for the Champions League those achievements that would burnish Cathro’s CV no end.
The 28-year-old Scot may not be a household name yet, but given his spectacular progress don’t be too surprised if he becomes known as one of Britain’s top coaches in years to come.