Hello guys and welcome to the first chapter of my FM21 series. Like I announced back in October, I’m managing in Scotland with the objective of reclaiming the passing style for it’s original creators. I’m also experimenting with new a style, trying to recreate a fly-on-the-wall style documentary with a narrator and interviews of the protagonists. Hope you enjoy it!
A young man is doing kick-ups close to some trees, while our team of interviewers and some bystanders look from a distance. He’s got thick black eyebrows and dark hair, but a feeble stubble can’t hide his young age. You can see the sweat dripping from his head and in his drenched clothes; he’s just finished working out.
As some kids approach slowly, he greets them with a smile and signs some autographs for them. He’s not quite famous yet, but he will be soon enough. Nothing has been confirmed, but the rumours have started swirling. Unknowingly to most, he’s just signed a 2-year deal to become the manager of Hearts.
Heart of Midlothian Football Club, one of the oldest names in Scottish football, was relegated after a shortened 19/20 season due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now they will play in the Scottish Championship, the second division of Scottish football, to regain their place in the top tier. They were looking for the right man for the job. Reporters gather in the Press Conference room. With each passing minute, the anxiety increases; with all the logical candidates long discarded, the question remains: who are they appointing?
Chief Executive Andrew McKinlay and Director of Football Richard Marshall enter the room. Behind them, a young man finds his place and takes a seat; only a select few in the crowd recognize him, his name is Ross Salcedo.
“Welcome everybody”, opens McKinlay, “First of all, I’d like to thank all of you for being here, as well as waiting so patiently. We know you’re in the business of giving the news before they become such, so I’m very thankful for the respect from everyone here. Today I’m really excited to present to you the young man to my right, Ross Salcedo, as he’ll be taking the role of Manager of Heart of Midlothian Football Club”.
The sound of clattering flashes drowns the room, with journalists scrambling to take notes. Hearts interest in Salcedo had been kept quiet, and even those who knew thought he had few chances of taking the job.
“Our process for choosing the next manager might have yielded a surprising result, but we’re confident in the result”, McKinlay continues, “After what has been without a doubt a very disappointing season for us all, we felt we needed to think extremely carefully about our next step. With the recent past only too fresh in every fan’s mind and the challenges presented to us by the worldwide crisis, we understood it was key for the club to adopt a model of self sustainability and growth. Ross presented a view for the future of the club that aligned with our own and we feel this will be a long and fruitful relationship”.
But who is exactly Ross Salcedo? The descendant of a Basque exile, his family has been calling Scotland home for over ninety years, as his father and grandfather worked in the docks at Grangemouth. The 32 year-old may be an unknown in his own land, but he isn’t exactly an outsider to the world of football.
“My grandfather was amongst Los Niños, the kid exiles who arrived in Britain from the Basque Country and other parts of Spain after the beginning of the Spanish Civil War”, explains Salcedo talking to our team, “When the time to return to Spain came, he decided he’d rather stay here, and was allowed to do so. It’s thanks to his Basque nationality that when I started catching the eye as a kid at Falkirk’s Academy, Athletic Bilbao was interested”.
Salcedo would move with his grandparent’s family to Spain at the age of 13 and went on to play several years at the Spanish club, first on the academy and then on the B sides before an injury would spell the end of his career at just 24.
“From there I went on to work with the club’s third side, Baskonia, first as a scout and then as a coach”, he says.
In 2014, then S.D. Eibar manager Gaizka Garitano offered him a position as his assistant, and they stayed together the Basque manager’s stints at Real Valladolid, Deportivo La Coruña, and Bilbao Athletic, before the two took over at Athletic Bilbao.
“I’ve spent a lot of time both at my grandfather’s fatherland and in Scotland, so they’re both hugely important for me. I’ve done that balancing act all my life, it’s part of who I am now”, Salcedo points out, “So of course when Andrew and Richard called me I was very excited. This is an opportunity for me, not only to take the next step in my managing career but to make the most of who I was, where I’ve been, and who I can become”.
“For us finding Ross was almost a revelation”, explains Richard Marshall. “We wanted from day one that someone who was ready to think outside the box, who was ready to look past the immediate and into the future. The club has had enough close calls, enough people without a vision, simply looking out for the next big goal. We were thrilled to find someone who not only was ready to build something, but also had the know-how and the skill to do it, and who was interested in coming to Hearts to do it, so it was a no-brainer”.
“We want this club to go back where it belongs”, says Andrew McKinlay, “We want to get Scottish football back where it belongs. We want Hearts playing entertaining, expansive football, and Ross was absolutely the right man to get us there”.
It’s now been four months since Ross Salcedo’s arrival at Hearts and the changes are becoming clearer. Hearts are undefeated in a brilliant Pre-Season that saw them win seven of their first eight matches, including a Scottish League Cup debut. This period was vital for the coaching staff, as they needed to make a full evaluation of the squad to determine if they were up to the task.
“We had done a lengthy video-analysis of the players’ performances during the past season, but now we have a better idea of what we can expect from everyone”, points out to us Gordon Forrest, the assistant manager.
A key performer in the club’s Pre-Season was centreback John Souttar.
“John is gonna be absolutely crucial this season for us”, explains Salcedo. “He’s great at bringing the ball out from defense, he’s got great technique and reading of the game, but he’s also our leader in defense”.
“It’s clear that the board, the boss and his team are trying to build something here”, says the Scotland international, “so it’s really exciting. Last season was a hard one for us. We thought we could’ve had a chance had the season finished, but in the end we were simply not good enough. Now we have to get back up”.
Heart’s Captain Steven Naismith has also proven an indispensable figure on the pitch.
“The thing with Steven is that he’s got not only a great eye for a pass and fantastic technique, but he’s also a vital figure in the dressing room. His commitment to be the best he can is contagious”, explains Salcedo, “He’ll be massive for us this season”.
Hearts’ sole signing of the season, right fullback Anthony Ralston who’s on loan from Celtic hit the ground running too.
“When the Medical Staff determined Jamie [Brandon]’s injury was gonna be long term”, says Richard Marshall, “we met with Ross, Andrew and the team and decided we needed a replacement. Luckily Anthony was available and interested, and he’s looked fantastic so far”.
With the whole of Hearts’ squad looking sharp and ready, the team has been playing fantastic football. Playing in a league that has often been maligned for an overly physical game, reclaiming one of the oldest traditions of Scottish football is key for Salcedo.
“Cruyff was seen as a revolutionary, but the ideas that he brought to Barcelona are part of a tradition that goes back to the very first international, played between Scotland and England in Partick in 1872”, says tactics historian Jonathan Wilson. “England had been expected to win; they were more experienced, had more players to call and were a stone heavier per man. So the Scots had to consider how to deal with that.”
“Their answer was to avoid the charging game of that era, and instead keep the ball away from England by passing it around. Back then, that was hardly practised at all. It worked, however; Scotland secured a 0-0 draw”, continues Wilson, “The Barcelona style Cruyff imposed wasn’t born there. It stretched back beyond that, through Buckingham to McWilliam and before him to ‘Toffee Bob’ McColl and that first Scottish side”.
“Our goal then is not only to regain the top tier status for Hearts”, says Salcedo, “But to do it in a way that makes those founders of a footballing tradition proud”.
The real test begins now for Hearts as they take on promotion-hopeful rivals Dundee FC. The Pre-Season was good for them but now the real deal begins. The match has been spiced up by comments from Dundee manager James McPake saying the Dees were the top candidate for promotion, and not Hearts. Tynecastle Park is bustling and over eighteen thousand people are waiting for their Jambos ¿can they do it when it matters?
At the end of the first half, a lackluster Hearts fall 1-0. While Gordon Forrest argues in the tunnel with the fourth official, the players get in the dressing, fuming. They’re waiting for a tell-off from the manager. They’ve been out-shot, out worked, out-played.
“We knew this wasn’t going to be easy lads, but ¿where’s the effort? ¿Where’s all the things we’ve been working on during these weeks?”, says Salcedo, “It’s no bloody use if you do it on wednesday, and then slack off on Saturday lads. We know they like to talk, so let’s play them out. I know you can do it, come on then!”
Hearts begin their season on the wrong foot.
It’s now been a full month of competition for Hearts. Their October form continued to stutter with a Championship draw vs Arbroath found between League Cup wins, but they’ve just picked up their first league win, beating Alloa Athletic 1-0 with a goal from left back Stephen Kingsley.
“We know we haven’t been at our best”, says Salcedo, “but we’ve got a terrific squad and we know that will shine through eventually”.
The players are training behind him, conducted by the assistant manager.
“There is also something that you have to take into consideration and it’s that we aren’t trying to get there anyway but instead trust in what we’re doing is for the best in the long run”, the manager continues, “so you have to take the good with the bad. We know some things need adjusting and we’re working towards that. The next match we receive Inverness so that’s another chance to improve. I trus…”
The interview is cut short as some shouting raises in the back. There’s been an accident during the training session. As Salcedo and the interviewers move closer, it becomes clear that club captain Steven Naismith has been hurt after a clash with a teammate. He clutches his right knee and it’s clear that he’s in some serious pain.
It is only late that night that the medical team can confirm he’s suffered an ACL tear. He’s now expected to stay sidelined for five to seven months. Hearts’ season has just taken a huge blow.