Only hours after he had been asked to take charge of Hearts for this afternoon’s Betfred Cup semi-final, Austin MacPhee settled on his team for the match and on a gameplan he hopes will be good enough to see off Rangers at Hampden.
“I decided it on Thursday night,” said the interim manager. “I’m very clear on what I want the team to do. Do they know? Well, we trained on Friday morning, and I’d hope they’d know.
“I’ve had a lot of dialogue one to one with a lot of players, and it was important for me to make sure they understood the training, and what I want them to do in their role and also that they felt comfortable saying that they didn’t, if they didn’t.
“For the senior ones, I want their input. I don’t want them to be mute. But, I know what I want the team to do. Whether I’ve had enough time over 48 hours to articulate that to them, time will tell.”
The dismissal of Craig Levein on Thursday means MacPhee has been handed the reins on a temporary basis. As assistant to both Levein and his predecessor Ian Cathro, he is close enough to gauge strengths and weaknesses and, talking about an imbalance in personnel, he is well aware of the discomfort that accompanies a streak of games that has been short on wins and damaging to confidence.
Which is why he has opted to keep things as simple as possible for the players who vented their issues with the coaches and each other in the wake of the most recent defeat, by St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park, on Wednesday, the game which sealed Levein’s fate.
“I want to try to shoulder some of the pressure they feel, in the way I want them to play,” said MacPhee.
“Most are round pegs in round holes. There’s maybe one wee square peg going to get shoved in there – but it’s my job to make sure the square peg knows how to get into the round hole, and for them to feel confident in their role.
“But ten out of the 11 roles, I’m very confident in the players, based on what I’ve seen them do for this club, a previous club, or their country.”
He has players returning from injury and he admitted that Steven Naismith is one he intends to give game time, having relied on the experienced attacker in a previous caretaker spell, and been rewarded handsomely. When Levein suffered a heart attack last August MacPhee took charge and oversaw a 4-1 home win over St Mirren in which Naismith scored a hat-trick.
Hearts have sorely missed the attacker this season. The forward area is one where the injury crisis has hit hardest. Playmakers such as Naismith and Jamie Walker were expected to weigh in with 20 to 30 goals between them this term but have spent most of the season in rehab, while wingers Callumn Morrison and now Jake Mulraney have also been forced out.
But it was the hamstring injury sustained by summer signing Conor Washington, in September, that proved the tipping point in MacPhee’s mind and left the coach, who also assists Michael O’Neill on Northern Ireland duty, fearing for Hearts’ fortunes and the managerial team’s future.
“Aye, Washington’s hamstring. Because he was a different profile of striker that we had brought to the club. He had just played really well against Germany, so much so that our goalie coach got a call from [Newcastle manager] Steve Bruce saying ‘he’s a good player isn’t he?’
“But then, just after he has just put in that performance against the Germans and caused them all sorts of problems, he stretches for a ball [against Motherwell in mid-September] and snaps his hamstring.
“Conor was the only kind of player we had that runs behind all the time. He is a different type of striker to what we already had at the club so when he went we needed to find another way to skin the cat and that may take a bit of time.
“Personally, I think we need more wide players with pace who can score. We are a wee bit short at the top end of the pitch. We know that Naisy can do a lot of things – he can probably play every position other than the back four and Steven MacLean is obviously a link-up player who, at 37, is great around the club. Uche is Uche and Aidan Keena needs to become a Hearts first-team player but in this period, it’s been hard for young players to break into a team that doesn’t have confidence. You maybe have less resilience in the moments when it’s tough out there.”
Drawing 1-1 with Rangers in their recent league meeting has offered the Gorgie side some hope but, at Hampden today, they will all have to be resolute. They will also have to know their roles. Their interim boss has confidence in their ability to carry them out. That will need to be shared by the players and reflected in their performance if they are to leave the national stadium with the pick-me-up they desperately need.