As an assistant manager, Austin MacPhee has tasted bitter disappointment in World Cup qualifiers and in cup finals, but those feelings paled compared to the dismay he felt last Saturday evening.
Following the relative high of victory in a bottom-of-the-table, must-win match with St Mirren the previous week, the interim Hearts manager had travelled to Kilmarnock in the belief that his temporary charges could build on that and, he hoped, enhance his chances of landing the gig on a permanent basis.
Losing three goals in the first 16 minutes put paid to that and all that was guaranteed was a miserable Saturday night.
Having had a lifetime in football, it was the kind of hurt he had never really felt before. As the man in charge, the feelings were “significantly” more intense.
“I have lost big games as an assistant but you feel more responsible [when you’re the manager] because, ultimately, it is your decisions,” explained MacPhee. “Probably the biggest defeats I’ve had as an assistant manager were the World Cup play-offs in Switzerland [with Northern Ireland] – that was particularly difficult because it had been my dream since I was a wee boy to get to a World Cup – and then the Scottish Cup final with Hearts [last season]. That was because we had worked particularly forensically to prepare the team, because there were two games with Celtic in a row and that allowed us to be more reflective, and we took the lead and, also, I always felt it was going to be a massive moment in [former manager] Craig Levein’s career given the pressure he was under and the talk about him winning a trophy.
“They were the two games as an assistant where I probably felt the most pain and I still went home last Saturday feeling worse. Definitely.”
It was a blow to his hopes of convincing the Hearts board that he should be given the reins on a permanent basis. Daniel Stendel remains in the wings, his representatives steadily working their way through negotiations, but while the German is the favourite to assume the position, MacPhee, who takes Hearts to Ibrox to face in-form Rangers today, is determined to use his time at the helm productively.
“I think you need to constantly go back to asking yourself if what I am thinking about and doing, is that going to help the team win? The only way you are going to have an impact is if what you are thinking or doing is helping you help the players and help the staff with the vision that is in your head for this game or a number of games,” he said.
“The other things that take up a lot of time, or could take up a lot of time or space in your head, you have to be disciplined and shut them out. The only thing that will affect the story is the result of the game.”
“I never like to sweep things under the carpet,” he says of that Kilmarnock defeat. “So we went through everything with the players and it was a crazy eight minutes that put us out of the game. The first person you look at is yourself. I think the decisions you make after a goal are very important and sometimes the goal or goals can make you react when sometimes you need to take time to consider any changes.”
What else has he learned in his time in charge? “I’ve learned I enjoy it! That has been the main thing. I think that in life you always learn from things that don’t go well more than from things that do, and I feel I have the resilience to be involved in this profession. I have learned how important it is, especially when there is a power vacuum and you are only the caretaker manager, to find a way to manage through relationships, and that has been something I have felt comfortable doing. It would be foolish, as a caretaker manager, to try to rule or manage with an iron fist because, ultimately, you are not in a permanent position,” he notes.
“So, I have really enjoyed finding a way to work with different people, in a different relationship than the one I maybe had before. Although I have done this before and, as a consequence, I feel comfy in my own skin. Obviously, defeats are disappointing, wins leave you relieved, but I have confidence in my own ability to help a football club, irrespective of the role.
“I think that the club is going to restructure in a way that looks to the next five years. It has had a structure that has taken it from administration and Championship football to consistent top-six finishes.
“It now needs a tweak in the structure that delivers consistent European football and that comes from finishing in the top four nine years out of ten. It comes from getting 60 points, which comes from winning half your games, consistently. Ann [Budge, CEO, pictured] is looking at everything, the football department and beyond, to allow the club to do those things.”