Hearts' Austin MacPhee toasts more Northern Ireland success

Austin MacPhee's exploits with the currently all-conquering Northern Ireland are helping shake off the impression he is a novice. Aged just 37, the Hearts assistant manager is often placed in the same category as Ian Cathro, erstwhile head coach at Tynecastle.

Austin MacPhee and Aaron Hughes celebrate Northern Ireland's win over Czech Republic.
Austin MacPhee and Aaron Hughes celebrate Northern Ireland's win over Czech Republic.

But, as he prepares to clock in for work with new Hearts head coach Craig Levein tomorrow, MacPhee is nearing his 400th match in the dugout. He has worked in every league in Scotland with Cowdenbeath, St Mirren and now Hearts and with players from every league in England while with Northern Ireland.

In addition, together with a Northern Irish team that seems to be getting better and better, he’s been to the knockout stage of the European Championships and is edging closer to the World Cup. Yet he’s still looked upon as inexperienced because he is young and has long hair.

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MacPhee began working with Northern Ireland four years ago on a South American tour. The trip had appeared a thankless one.

Manager Michael O’Neill was trying to lift spirits after a World Cup qualifying campaign in which Northern Ireland lost to Luxembourg and finished fifth in their group. They were ranked around 100 in the world at the time.

O’Neill’s alchemy in overseeing Northern Ireland’s rise to their current status of 23 has been one of the football stories of recent times. It is also one imbued with a very Scottish flavour. O’Neill and assistants MacPhee and Jimmy Nicholl flew home to Scotland on the same flight yesterday.

O’Neill is based in Edinburgh, MacPhee in Fife, from where he commutes to carry out his Hearts duties, and Nicholl is domiciled near 
Stirling.

Also on board the plane to Edinburgh from Belfast were Hearts players Kyle Lafferty, Aaron Hughes and Michael Smith, as was Rangers full-back Lee Hodson. All except Smith had played their part in the previous night’s 2-0 win over Czech Republic that secured second spot in Group C for Northern Ireland.

“If you look at the team that finished the game last night, Michael McGovern was in goal – who a year and a half ago was in the SPFL at Hamilton,” says MacPhee. “Hodson of Rangers was at right wing back, Hughes was at centre-half, Josh Magennis wide right, Kyle up front and Niall McGinn, recently at Aberdeen, was on the wing.”

Of course, there remains a possibility that MacPhee, a Fifer, could come up against Scotland in the play-offs. “I would be disappointed if that happened,” he says. “You want both countries to get there and that would mean it was not possible. I’d feel a lot more comfortable being in the same group in Russia than meeting in a play-off.”

Northern Ireland stand a chance of being seeded so it could be a one in four chance of the countries being drawn together – providing Scotland can also secure a place in the play-offs. After their recent heroics Northern Ireland would surely have to start favourites.

“The biggest benefit for a smaller nation being at a major finals is we had 44 days together,” says MacPhee, recalling reaching the last 16 at Euro 2016. “That’s 44 days Scotland haven’t had. And an additional four or five games.

“As a consequence we are now in a scenario where we have coached the players more. They know us better, we know them better.”

Watching O’Neill operate at close quarters is helping MacPhee develop as a coach. He now realises it’s often as much about instinct as experience. “I listened to a really interesting talk by Walter Smith, he says. “He was talking about how people talk of 
needing experience to be a manager, whether it is playing experience or just managerial experience.

“He said one of the biggest things he learned is that experience does not always help you. Like last night for example we started off 
4-2-3-1 and they [Czech Republic] played almost like a 3-4-3. Walter said sometimes experience makes you look back and think: ‘was there a game when I faced this before and what was my change?’

“Whereas if you are inexperienced sometimes you trust your instinct more. Michael trusts his instinct a lot – and his instinct, during the time I have had with him, has been constantly proved correct, like when he changed six players against Ukraine in the second game of Euro 2016.

“That is not out of a coaching course or from experience.”

MacPhee believes Hearts can similarly only benefit from Northern Ireland’s ongoing march, since, in addition to him, they provide three members of the playing squad.

“I think it helps the profile of the club a lot,” he says. “Just looking at the programme yesterday you see all the teams the players are from, the West Broms, Southamptons and then you see ‘Heart of Midlothian’ three times.

“Michael Smith was on the bench and Kyle came on and Aaron started,” he added. “Hopefully the Hearts supporters trust me, Aaron, Kyle and Michael a little more.

“We are doing something successfully at a higher level than Hearts. When we make decisions, whether it’s on the football pitch or at the club, they know it’s people working at a high level.”