Allan Preston enjoyed a decent football career. He played for Dundee United and Hearts and distinguished himself in Perth with a good St Johnstone side.
He’s allowed to have a view on Scottish football even if he’s not to everyone’s taste. But his opinions expressed on Saturday afternoon on BBC Radio Scotland’s Sportsound programme appeared to veer too close to overly personal as he tore into Austin MacPhee’s credentials for the post of Hearts manager.
Not content with this, he also dismissed the idea MacPhee could perform the role of a sporting director – never mind the fact he was close to being appointed SFA performance director three years ago, following Brian McClair’s departure.
MacPhee, Preston also argued, is too closely associated with the Craig Levein era, despite one of his criticisms of the interim manager being that he effectively “stuck two fingers up at Levein” when picking Craig Wighton for the Betfred Cup semi-final v Rangers. The pundit claimed it was like saying: “You’ve got nothing out of Wighton but I will get a tune out of him.”
MacPhee would be the first to admit he failed in that regard. But it was a reasonable plan designed to catch Rangers off guard. As was naming Uche Ikpeazu on the bench in the expectation he’d come on in the second half to provide some fresh impetus in the attacking area.
The wide expanse of Hampden is not Tynecastle, where Ikpeazu had enjoyed success against Rangers a fortnight earlier. Criticism of this decision fails to address an inconvenient truth. Ikpeazu played for over 50 minutes after replacing Steven MacLean when the score was still 0-0. Indeed, it was he who lost his man as Rangers scored in first-half injury time to further rip up MacPhee’s game plan.
The interim manager didn’t lose faith in himself, nor did he retreat into a shell. He put on a different three-piece suit and went back to work. He shuffled his pack once more, sending out an even more attack-minded team against St Mirren.
The upshot was Hearts scoring five goals for the first time in three-and-a-half-years. The 5-2 win means he has now overseen three victories in four matches as interim manager, having also taken the reins last season while Levein recovered from a heart attack. He was also in charge for a 1-0 Scottish Cup win over Livingston when Levein was banned from the touchline. Not surprising then he is featuring as high as he is in the latest next manager odds.
When owner Ann Budge appeared to stress she was looking for someone high profile and experienced to fill the post, many were swift to write MacPhee off. Possibly too swift. High profile? In his role as assistant to Michael O’Neill, MacPhee will be standing a few yards from Ronald Koeman at a high-octane fixture between Northern Ireland and the Netherlands on Saturday night. He has gone from devising a plan to overcome St Mirren to helping calculate how to quell the threat of the likes of Memphis Depay and Matthijs de Ligt.
A few days later, he will be shaking hands with Joachim Loew in Frankfurt prior to another huge occasion against Germany.
This will be his 57th game involved with Northern Ireland stretching back five years. Perhaps we need to re-assess the idea of him as inexperienced.
If Budge has started thinking seriously about hiring MacPhee as manager, or even as sporting director, she may need to factor in what has happened elsewhere. MacPhee will be in the company of O’Neill, recently named the new Stoke City manager, for the next nine days. It’s inconceivable the subject of MacPhee joining him at Stoke won’t be addressed.
Of course, the international break, while giving MacPhee the chance to mix at the very top level, might be ill-timed. It’s not ideal to be away from Tynecastle for so long during a period of such flux.
But Budge seems content to give him time to make his pitch for the post. She has already spoken about being in no rush. She wants, indeed needs, to get this appointment right.
Indeed, she’s hopeful of installing a sports director first. MacPhee will likely have another, admittedly tricky, game against Kilmarnock, and then could well be in charge for the trip to Rangers. Another game, at home to Livingston, follows just four days later.
He took training yesterday before flying out to Belfast along with Michael Smith, one of several players willing to back MacPhee’s case. Indeed, MacPhee is a significant reason why Smith is at Tynecastle. Jake Mulraney hinted at a significant change in training under MacPhee following Saturday’s victory – “it [is] a little bit more structural, if that makes sense,” he said. MacPhee was also pivotal in Kyle Lafferty’s successful spell at Hearts and was the key factor in Ryotaro Meshino’s arrival on loan from Manchester City.
And yet Preston, felt it more relevant to mention Malaury Martin in relation to MacPhee’s player recruitment record – it’s understood he had nothing to do with the Frenchman’s arrival, which, in any case, was nearly three years ago.
There’s been disquiet about MacPhee from other quarters, not just Preston. It might be the long hair, the lack of traditional football background – MacPhee played mostly overseas, in the States, Romania and Japan – and the continued hangover from the Ian Cathro experiment, which is when MacPhee first became involved at Tynecastle.
He knows it takes more than simply dressing well on the touchline to convince those that matter he’s the right fit. But Saturday’s result was one in the eye for those who seem curiously determined to see him fail.