Taming critics one of the challenges Austin MacPhee relishes

Hearts' new assistant head coach Austin MacPhee. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS
Hearts' new assistant head coach Austin MacPhee. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS
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As far as first impressions go, the impact made by Hearts’ new management duo as they greeted the media on Tuesday was positive.

There have been doubts raised about their lowly playing credentials and aspersions cast on their ability to lead professionals but they intend to challenge those lazy views. Respect, said assistant manager Austin MacPhee, is something that can be easily earned and just as easily lost, rendering past achievements all but irrelevant.

Austin MacPhee with Hearts owner Ann Budge. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

Austin MacPhee with Hearts owner Ann Budge. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

“People talk about the dressing room like you’re going into some kind of zoo. Footballers are human beings, and there are a lot of intelligent ones in there. The only thing that helps you govern the dressing room is respect. Pele could lose respect in ten minutes and I could gain respect in ten minutes.

“He’s not going to lose respect as a player but he will lose respect as a manager if players think ‘he can’t coach us very well’, if it’s not organised very well, if it doesn’t work, if they don’t believe in your ideas, if you don’t help them, if you don’t know that some need a cuddle and some need a kick up the arse.

“Ultimately, it comes down to basic human behaviour and there is a balance to be struck. People who haven’t played have got to try harder to get in initially but they shouldn’t use that as a barrier. Likewise, people who have played shouldn’t use that as a CV requirement in coaching. There is no right answer [about the background of the perfect coach]. It could be a watershed moment, but obviously we need to do well.”

Degrees in psychology and English give him an advantage when it comes to understanding what makes players tick and when communicating ideas. But, as founder of his own company, AM Sports Tours, he knows the importance of the bottom line.

“There’s been a lot said about what ex-professionals have said [about Cathro] but I also think it’s up to coaches who haven’t played to be ambitious, to break in, to do that extra thing that you need to do to get in. At the start, nobody’s going to open the door for you. You need to volunteer, do things for free, and then, if you’re good enough, there will be opportunities there. Players ultimately want to see that you can help them be better. If you can do that, they’ll listen to you.”

That ability to tap into the psyche of individuals and what makes them tick has been a pivotal part of MacPhee’s move up the career ladder, from amateur football to Cowdenbeath, St Mirren and onto international level, working with Mexico’s national team before joining forces with Michael O’Neill to help guide Northern Ireland to the summer’s European Championships, the country’s first role in a major tournament for 30 years.

Having been in the running for the SFA Performance Director role, the 37-year-old coach said the idea of combining a day job as assistant boss at Hearts with his role at Northern Ireland proved too good to resist, with 
both MacPhee and Cathro determined to build on everything they have inherited at Hearts.

It was touted that the pair have been long-time friends and although MacPhee said that is a myth, explaining the association is in fact more recent, it is one that has worked well thus far. Hearts can testify to that, having been on the wrong end of their 
collaboration back in 2013.

“I knew him and he knew me but we weren’t friends or anything. The defining moment, when we started to exchange more ideas about football, was with Esmael Goncalves. I was looking at innovative ways to bring better players into St Mirren. I phoned Ian and he spoke of Esma and said he had someone who was really talented but said ‘you will need to breathalyse him at training!’ Ian said he was the biggest party animal and had been frozen out of their squad [at Rio Ave]. He said I knew I liked a challenge and this would take my man management to the next level.”

The story of him babysitting Goncalves, who went on to score in a semi-final and in the final, against Hearts, is well told and ends in trophy success for St Mirren but now he wants more glory, this time with the Gorgie club rather than against them.