The next four European Championship qualifiers facing Northern Ireland are slightly daunting, to say the least. Assistant coach Austin MacPhee revels in the intensity of these international duels. It’s a far cry from being paid £20 a week to coach Cupar Hearts.
MacPhee turns 40 next month having already amassed more than 600 senior games in various coaching roles since his Duffus Park days. He is second in command at Heart of Midlothian and also operates alongside Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill and assistant Jimmy Nicholl. For someone with a modest playing career in America, Romania and Japan, who coached at the 2016 European Championship finals, there is a feeling he has now earned his stripes.
Germany and Holland will test him and his colleagues to the limit. When Manuel Neuer leads the Germans out at Windsor Park on Monday evening, four critical qualifiers to determine section-topping Northern Ireland’s Euro 2020 fate will begin. The Bayern Munich goalkeeper’s salubrious lifestyle couldn’t be further removed from MacPhee’s humble beginnings. The Fifer kind of likes it that way, though. He wants acceptance from those higher up in the game and has worked tirelessly to develop enough knowledge to gain it.
“Young coaches go into management and succeed or fail,” he said, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “They are very focused on the coaching, the training session. Ian Cathro was very focused on that at Hearts because that’s what he perceived the head coach’s role to be: coaching. I’ve seen Craig Levein man-manage a disgruntled Kyle Lafferty. I’ve seen Michael O’Neill drop five players after a game at the Euros. I’ve heard more than 600 half-time team-talks and seen whether they worked or not. I now feel I have a body of evidence in my head allowing me to make better and calmer decisions because of experience.
“The Belarus game [in June] was my 50th international. I’ve sat beside Jimmy Nicholl and Michael O’Neill for 40 of them. What an experience. I now feel very comfortable in my own skin being asked about how I think we should set up. We probably need to beat Germany or Holland once in these four games to have a good chance of going to the Euros. We have been discussing how we are going to play and I feel an equal in that conversation. Germany and Holland at home, plus Germany and Holland away. It keeps you excited.”
This is the kind of level MacPhee aspired to back in 2007 when conducting his first Cupar Hearts training session. He is not easily flustered and tries to thrive on pressure rather than hide from it. There is plenty of both surrounding club and country right now but he takes a philosophical approach. Working at Hearts each week then decamping to join Northern Ireland has given him a dual insight into man-management. He continues to absorb information. He’s also not bad at networking and was influential in some of Hearts’ summer signings.
Speaking back in July, MacPhee said: “At Cupar Hearts I was paid 20 quid to coach the team and got good experience. I ended up at Cowdenbeath with Danny Lennon. We did well and Danny took me to St Mirren. We won the League Cup and I got involved with Northern Ireland then Hearts.
“We played Estonia with Northern Ireland in June. I was walking round the pitch to the dugout in Tallinn when someone in the stand shouts across. It was the German assistant manager, Thomas Schneider. I had a beer with him after we lost to them in Hanover. It was very brief but he remembered me and my name. He spoke to me about Estonia and Belarus and you kind of feel accepted when that happens.
“He doesn’t come back to you unless his conclusion from your last conversation was that you’re a good guy and you know what you’re doing. Those things give you confidence in front of players, or if Craig [Levein] asks for my input, or whatever. It’s not just about feeling good enough, but that you’ve seen enough situations not to be surprised. You get a man sent off against Celtic, you leave a player out, he walks out the changing room, there’s a fight, your key player is late – there are so many situations.
“Doing club and international football has been a good balance. I take confidence from the fact Michael O’Neill has trusted me to sit beside him against Holland and Germany and go: ‘What do you think?’ You must be doing something right.”
MacPhee’s Northern Ireland connections worked to Hearts’ benefit again with the capture of striker Conor Washington in June. He is in the squad for tonight’s friendly with Luxembourg and Monday’s qualifier against the Germans. His Tynecastle colleague Michael Smith has been forced to withdraw due to the hamstring issue which caused him to miss Saturday’s draw with Hamilton at Tynecastle Park.
O’Neill described Smith’s absence as “a blow”, for he was in line to start at right-back. “The boys who have played international football have that little bit more confidence from being in that environment,” explained MacPhee.
“The biggest difference I’ve noticed is Michael Smith. He is playing in a Northern Ireland back four where the other three [Leicester City’s Jonny Evans, Watford’s Craig Cathcart and Norwich City’s Jamal Lewis] play in the English Premier League.
“In the first half in Estonia, he played like he felt he didn’t merit being there. Yet, once Michael O’Neill told him just to play like he plays for Hearts, he was excellent. He was brilliant in the second game in Belarus. He drove forward, passed forward and played off both feet into the striker. That’s opposed to passing back to two English Premier League centre-backs who he had received a pass from like it was a privilege rather than anything else.”
Being involved with Northern Ireland is a privilege for MacPhee and he would never suggest otherwise, but it is a privilege he has earned over time.