According to former Celtic defender Erik Sviatchenko, the club’s skipper, the innovative Midtjylland and meticulous MacPhee are an extremely good fit. The evidence – something such a progressive, date-driven club relies on – backs this up. They have won their last four league and cup matches.
Despite only being in existence for little more than two decades, Midtjylland reached the group stage of the Champions League under well regarded coach Brian Priske earlier this season. They are owned by Oxford University physics graduate Matthew Benham, who also owns English Championship side Brentford.
Both clubs put a great emphasis on youth development. The Midtjylland academy is dubbed the “goldmine”. MacPhee founded AM Soccer in 2006 and the community football club, based in Cupar, is still going strong. He remains on the Northern Ireland coaching staff and is currently preparing for a World Cup qualifier against Italy in Parma next month. He was last seen in this country when featuring prominently in the behind-the-scenes docuseries on Hearts that aired in November.
He’s ditched the three-piece suit for some warmer clothes on the Jutland peninsula and has been a welcome addition. “The players have been very open to him – he knows when to push and when to train a little bit less. He is already very popular,” says Sviatchenko.
“When I heard that a Scottish guy was coming in, I asked: ‘can you send me the name, it will be funny if I know him.’ I got the name Austin MacPhee and looked him up on Google and of course I immediately remembered him on the sidelines with his long hair and beard when I played for Celtic against Hearts.
“It turns out he was also at Hampden when I scored my first goal for Celtic against Rangers. In that sense we already had a bit of a connection.”
There’s another connection – MacPhee’s grandfather was the cartoonist Bud Neill, while Sviatchenko’s father is a collage artist. “I remember the little sculpture on Woodlands Road,” says Sviatchenko, with reference to a statue in Glasgow featuring one of Neill’s cartoon characters, Lobby Dosser. The Dane threw himself into Scottish life during his Celtic stay. “It’s great to have someone saying ‘wee again’ and ‘big man’ to me again!”
Sviatchenko believes the 41-year-old MacPhee’s experience of working with an underdog, specifically Northern Ireland, is invaluable. “We are now a team that has the ball a lot – everyone wants to beat us in the Superliga,” says Sviatchenko. “The opposition use certain things against us. Austin has an appreciation of this aspect of the game. If we can’t outspend them, we need to outthink them, that’s the Midtjylland philosophy.”
Another test of the coaching staff's tactical nous awaits tomorrow when leaders Brondby, a point above second-placed Midtjylland, are the visitors to their neat, 11,000-capacity stadium.
The club’s aim is to be playing Champions League group stage football again next season. It will be harder for MacPhee to remain so under the radar then.