Austin MacPhee lifts lid on specialist Scotland Euro 2024 role, Aston Villa success and bucketlist Tartan Army trip

Scotland’s set piece coach hoping to be the difference-maker

Euro 2024 fever is building and so it’s satisfying to have finally pinned down a well kent and increasingly indispensable member of the Scotland coaching team. Heads turn in the Italian restaurant as the long-haired, tracksuited Austin MacPhee sweeps in although he’s already looking somewhat agitated, which is a concern.

It later turns out Lyndon Dykes had just ruled himself out of the tournament after slipping in training. There have been better starts to an interview. By the end of the chat, over an hour and a half later, the news had already been relayed across social media, including paparazzi photographs of the stricken Dykes being stretchered off the Lesser Hampden pitch. MacPhee later laments the striker's absence, describing him as one of the few players “who heads the ball with his eyes open”.

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Such worries are a world away from the carefree days of the late 1990s. The last time Scotland played at a major finals abroad, MacPhee had a saltire daubed in paint across his stomach and chest. The 18-year-old was fresh out of school, on the books at Forfar Athletic and ready for some fun.

Aston Villa set piece coach Austin MacPhee shouts instructions during the 2-0 win at Arsenal in April. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)Aston Villa set piece coach Austin MacPhee shouts instructions during the 2-0 win at Arsenal in April. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Aston Villa set piece coach Austin MacPhee shouts instructions during the 2-0 win at Arsenal in April. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

"Going to a major tournament with Scotland is a bucket list thing as a supporter, and I went in 1998," says MacPhee, who’s now 44. "Me and my friend Grant had earned money throughout the year and bought a car. We had a tent and maybe £2,000 in the glovebox and came back five weeks later! We sailed from Newcastle to Amsterdam and then ‘warmed up’ in Amsterdam and then drove to Paris, driving round the Champs-Elysees in a right-hand drive Renault 5."

They stayed in a campsite on the outskirts of Paris and then went to Bordeaux for the Norway game, where they couldn’t find any accommodation. The internet was still in its infancy and MacPhee didn’t have a mobile phone. “I am amazed my mum let me go!" he says now.

They picked up tickets for the all-or-nothing Morocco match while in Bordeaux. "Where it all went wrong," he says, with reference to the 3-0 defeat in St Etienne. "We still had a bit of money left and drove the Monaco Grand Prix circuit in a Renault 5 and then drove back up again."

It would be a trip of a lifetime if the lifetime didn’t start involving equally memorable adventures at major tournaments, such as when he reached the last 16 of Euro 2016 with Northern Ireland as a member of Michael O’Neill’s backroom staff. “None of us wanted to come home,” he recalls. “It was a brilliant tournament. It was in one country that loved football, France….the buzz was like I remember in France ‘98 as a supporter and I really think Germany will be like that.”

Scotland set piece coach Austin MacPhee. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)Scotland set piece coach Austin MacPhee. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)
Scotland set piece coach Austin MacPhee. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)

There’s a photograph he says he will try to find for me of him standing with a beer in his hand at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard as Scotland capitulated against Morocco.

Now he is a lot closer to the action. Close enough to hear, for example, Virgil van Dijk’s shrieks of anguish on the pitch as Scotland out-Hollanded Holland in Amsterdam for around 70 minutes in March.

The fine margins were underlined that night in the Amsterdam Arena, with all Scotland’s good work being undone in the last 20 minutes by the ruthless hosts. A very similar challenge awaits in Munich tomorrow evening, when Scotland face Germany in the opening match of Euro 2024.

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MacPhee’s remarkable journey is continuing, from managing Cupar Hearts in his late 20s to having active involvement in Scotland’s biggest game in 26 years.

Scotland manager Steve Clarke with assistant Austin MacPhee during a training session at Oriam, Edinburgh.Scotland manager Steve Clarke with assistant Austin MacPhee during a training session at Oriam, Edinburgh.
Scotland manager Steve Clarke with assistant Austin MacPhee during a training session at Oriam, Edinburgh.

MacPhee’s recruitment by Steve Clarke as set-piece coach nearly three years ago was designed to help give Scotland an edge. It’s on nights like tomorrow when it can count. What can we expect set-piece wise? Notably, training was completely behind closed doors yesterday at Scotland's base in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The SFA have hired Jose Rodriguez Calvo, MacPhee’s analyst at Aston Villa, for the duration of the tournament.

"Set pieces will be certainly secondary to team performance but they are also linked," says MacPhee. "If we can get the performance from the team we will have more corner kicks and free kicks and concede less. If we don't perform to our capacity, you’ll end up defending 15 corners in a match and having one, so it becomes so important to have the ball."

Set-piece coaches are in vogue and in demand. Liverpool recently advertised for one. There's even a set-piece coaches’ transfer market. It's only a matter of time until Panini sticker books start creating space for them.

“I think I was the third (in the Premier League) when I joined Aston Villa,” he says. “Brentford and Arsenal already had a set-piece coach. I think there are now 13 in the league. Chelsea bought the one from Brentford for £750,000! Manchester United’s set piece coach went straight from being the set-piece coach to the manager of Minnesota in MLS, so there is credibility in the role. (Ange) Postecoglou is asked whether he wants one every time they (Spurs) lose a set piece. That speaks volumes.”

Hired at the start of the last World Cup qualifying campaign, it seemed like a bit of a coup by Clarke. After all, MacPhee had just featured in a discussion on Match of the Day, which is quite something for a failed footballer – his words. It wasn't necessarily completely flattering. Indeed, Danny Murphy was dismissing the idea that a set-piece coach was necessary, because - and this seemed to be the core of his argument - he didn't have one at Liverpool at the turn of the century. "Murphy has also been complimentary of what we are doing," notes MacPhee. So he should be. The stats don't lie.

Aston Villa finished top in all five major European leagues last season for goals from set-pieces, with 25. Now Scotland are reaping the benefit. Opta data shows Scotland have scored 11 goals from set-pieces in 18 competitive games since MacPhee joined the set-up. In the previous 18 matches it was just one – a Grant Hanley header from a deep free-kick against Austria. Defensively, they have also become stronger having kept eight clean sheets from set-pieces in qualifying, including home and away matches against Spain and Norway. The same level of focus is not so apparent in friendlies, granted, where France and Holland both scored from corners.

“I don’t think the improvement in Scotland is because I started,” says MacPhee. “If you hired Nico (Jover) from Arsenal or Bernardo (Cueva) from Brentford they would have had that effect.”

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But it’s Austino from Fife who got the gig, and his impact is unarguable. “Steve has not only decided that this is an area to improve on, he has given me the space to do it," he says. "There is a difference in hiring someone and then letting them work. The players also realise it is very important.”

Several have namechecked MacPhee, including Dykes while doing punditry work at the farewell match against Finland at Hampden last week, when he said the coaches have had to adapt to MacPhee’s way of doing things.

Clarke himself is generous with his mentions. The chain of command being what it is, it will always be Clarke then John Carver. But MacPhee and new boy James Morrison, “my fellow Brummie!” as MacPhee describes him, are lent on heavily, as is Chris Woods, the goalkeeper coach.

Clarke sees MacPhee between games, with Leicester the mutually agreed meeting point. There is a trust between the manager and his coaches. He values their input. "He actually said, 'Send me your Euro 2024 squad please',” reveals MacPhee. “So I sent him my 26-man squad. He asked the same of me, John, James and Woodsy. I had a couple of left-field ones in there.”

MacPhee is a clubbable character and he feels a bond with his fellow set-piece godfathers, even those on rival teams. “We suffer the same fate!" he says. "When you go to the edge of the pitch, at Villa I always go to the edge of the pitch, at Hampden sometimes not, as it is so far. But the general idea is that in that moment you are responsible. If you go to the edge of the pitch when you are defending a set piece, there is no upside – because everyone thinks you should not concede a goal, and you might. See if you go to the edge of the pitch in an attacking set piece, supporters think you should score – and you might not.

"There is an empathy between people in my job because you could lose the game off one and you are totally responsible. But that’s also the beauty of it. You are very involved in the outcome of the match."

It's clear the position now garners respect. Handshakes are exchanged with managers, including Pep Guardiola. "I am part of the same movie,” he says. “It’s a privilege but I believe I can help.” It's still slightly surreal catching sight of MacPhee at the end of games or seeing him march to the edge of the technical area at places like Anfield and Old Trafford and remember when he first emerged on the senior scene at St Mirren, where he first encountered someone who is now the talk of Bavaria.

"I am currently on the world record for days spent with John McGinn, he’s definitely bored of my patter now," he says, with reference to coming straight into the Scotland camp following a long, hard season with Villa, whose European run meant they were playing every three of four days throughout.

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There were still times when MacPhee could let his hair down, such as when he joined the players’ celebrations following Aston Villa’s Champions League qualification. That achievement pleased Prince William, a regular attender at games and training, among others.

Although the real royalty, according to MacPhee, is manager Unai Emery, who has altered his perception of the detail that exists in football. He signals the level of what he previously thought elite levels were with his hand, raising his hand two, three, maybe even four times higher when comparing it to what he understands now, having watched Emery take the team from relegation contenders to the Champions League in just 18 months.

The difference is as significant as the gulf in quality between the top flights in England and Scotland, something he had spelled out to him at the start of last season when Villa were drawn against Hibs in the Conference League. Even as a twice former caretaker manager of Hearts, the ease with which Villa ran over the top of Hibs distressed him somewhat, although he does acknowledge that the standard of Emery’s coaching played a large part.

“For me the privilege of working in the Premier League with such an experienced and successful coaching staff like Unai Emery’s really hit home when we beat Hibs 8-0 on aggregate,” he says. “And that is the environment where I was a couple of years before. To see the way the players touched the ball and moved their bodies whilst being conducted on the minute detail of their positioning showed me that this is a different sport to what I was seeing before.”

MacPhee has also learned an abundance from Clarke, who he describes as a “pioneer”, adding: “The team has developed in that it has been modernised hugely, and, on the eve of the Euros, could become the first Scotland side in history to reach the second stage. Even employing a set-piece coach shows deep thought about how to improve – and he didn’t even know me.”

Some have been slow to come round to the idea that someone should have sole responsibility for set-plays, but when, in Villa’s case, they produce 35 per cent of their goals, it seems crazy not to have one. In Scotland, people sometimes sniffed at MacPhee, whose playing career was “terminated” at Forfar by someone who, he says, “could see straight!” The best bit of advice he received when his last spell as Hearts caretaker manager ended was to concentrate on being a set-piece coach for the foreseeable future.

"The reasons for that were as a set-piece coach you have data," he explains. "Because no one is disputing whether it is or is not a corner, it is or is not a goal. You have data. It is not whatiffery. And Scottish football loves opinion, more so than England I think, because it is smaller. There is probably more whatiffery in village pubs than city pubs because everyone knows each other. And so going to Midtjylland in Denmark was a very wise decision.

"Hearts had been very good at set pieces. For the amount of corners we had, we scored the highest amount of goals in the Premiership. Northern Ireland were very good at set pieces and I was responsible for that, so I could say I was good at that. Could I prove I was good at other things? That could be more difficult. So I stuck to something and committed to something I could prove I was good at and improved."

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His spell at progressive FC Midtjylland changed everything. Having once been interviewed for the manager’s post at Dundee United, the club he grew up supporting, does MacPhee still harbour ambitions to be his own man?

It seems not for the time being but a reminder of a sometimes-fraught couple of spells in the dugout at Hearts is the three-piece suit he wore at Hampden, when Rangers beat his side 3-0 in a League Cup semi-final, and which is still hanging in his wardrobe.

“It still fits,” he points out. “I think the stress has balanced out the occasional pint in my local!” Oh to be back in that Renault 5 again.

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