Interview: Austin MacPhee on his Euro mission with Northern Ireland

If only Gordon Strachan and not Michael O'Neill had been the one to make such an astute recruitment in Austin MacPhee. There might then be no need for the old joke, heard again in France this week, to be resuscitated: what do you call a Scot at a major finals? The referee.

Fife-born coach Austin MacPhee is a key member of Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland backroom staff and is relishing his adopted nation's Euro 2016 adventure. Picture: Gordon Fraser

Actually, this isn’t entirely correct. We can be grateful for small mercies. While Scotland’s top whistler Willie Collum is indeed on duty at Euro 2016, he has a compatriot for company in MacPhee. Fortunately for a nation’s already low self-esteem, MacPhee, a 36-year-old from Fife, is a far more likely candidate than dear old Willie to help restore credibility.

Indeed, Scotland could well have done with the hours of work MacPhee puts in to studying opposition players like Robert Lewandowski. Sadly for us, it is Northern Ireland who are enjoying the fruits of the assistant coach’s forensic approach to the game.

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Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that Lewandowski, one of the most feared strikers in the game, is someone to watch. But MacPhee’s 
calculations means Northern Ireland will be on red alert towards the end of each half tomorrow night in Nice, where they play Poland in their opening Group C fixture. As 
Scotland know to their cost since it was an injury-time goal from Lewandowski that extinguished their qualification hopes, the striker is most dangerous when the clock is ticking down.

“Let me refer to my document”, says MacPhee. Rarely has a sentence containing so little promise produced such enlightenment. The document is entitled “Restraining Robert” and it’s one Strachan will wish he had access to a few months ago, when Lewandowski sank Scottish hopes by equalising with the last kick of October’s must win-match.

But it’s Northern Ireland who are treating these fact sheets with the reverence of someone handling the Dead Sea Scrolls. It contains information on the player even his own mother doesn’t know.

“Where he scores, how he scores, foot, head,” says MacPhee, sitting in the shade of the Northern Ireland media centre, based on the outskirts of a small Rhone village called Saint Georges de Reneins.

A panel clearly sets out the facts: of Lewandowski’s last 15 international goals, four have been scored with his head, eight with his right foot, and three with his left. “The key statistic is that he only scored seven per cent of his goals from outside the box,” MacPhee adds. “So he is not really such a threat there. But 73 per cent of his goals came in the last 15 minutes of the half. You can see when he scores – he has scored eight goals from the 82nd minute.

“I think teams go out with a heightened awareness of Lewandowski and then they switch off as fatigue builds. They feel they have dealt with him for 35 minutes and then they’ve gone ‘we have done it, we’ve kept him quiet’. He goes, ‘no you haven’t’. So what we have to do is make sure there is heightened awareness of where he is towards the end of each half.”

MacPhee has stressed to the Northern Ireland players they need to be on their guard at all times. “What this hopefully does is that they see the stadium clock and it ticks to 30 minutes, and they go: where is he? The minute won’t dictate his threat. I don’t necessarily think it is Lewandowski who changes, it is the awareness of him that drops. It seems quite factual, it’s something you can say happens rather than you think might happen, because the stats are there. It is always easier to get that message across if there is fact and not fiction.”

It pays to relay information so it is easily digestible when there is someone like Kyle Lafferty, Northern Ireland’s talismanic but clownish striker, in the audience: “Michael always says, take away the grey. There can’t be grey areas. But a lot of effort has to go into distilling it down to one sentence: he [Lewandowski] tends to score late on.”

There are worst places to come than the vineyards of Beaujolais to find a Scot going so diligently about his work. MacPhee’s task is to decant information into the ears of a group of international footballers from Northern Ireland eager to be handed every possible advantage.

The fact these players are so prepared to listen to what MacPhee has to say underlines the impression he has made since being asked on board by O’Neill.

After all, the Fifer can’t dazzle them by showing off his medals; he only played a couple of senior games for Forfar Athletic before embarking on a playing career in the United States, Japan and Romania that was seemingly designed to provide life adventures rather than on-field glory.

But here he now is, part of a backroom team relishing being at European international football’s high table. After a couple of years of work that led to qualification as group winners and months of careful planning thereafter, it all boils down to this: three group games against Poland, Ukraine and then world champions Germany.

MacPhee has been a valued member of the Edinburgh-based O’Neill’s backroom staff since being asked to join Northern Ireland on their South American tour two years ago. Northern Ireland have been rising steadily up the rankings ever since. They now sit at 25 (two places above tomorrow’s opponents, 18 above Scotland).

“The impression I get from other teams is that they are not as organised,” MacPhee says. “Speaking to other players, we do things a little differently. There is a sense of humility within the group in terms of knowing we need every tiny advantage to be successful. And if we embrace that then it is a very positive environment.”

The Irish Football Association have organised things down to the tiniest detail, ensuring the rooms of the chateau where the players and staff are staying have the personal touch. Hence why MacPhee was surprised but amused to be confronted by a photograph of himself when he first entered his billet. Also on the wall is a huge reproduction of Northern Ireland’s qualifying table, showing them sitting proudly on top. Everything is geared towards positivity.

“Maybe for 24 hours it was like ‘wow, I am at the Euros’, now it has changed to simply wanting to do well,” says MacPhee. He is leaving nothing to chance and is grateful the players, a mixture of recruits from a variety of clubs of different standing, are proving so receptive.

“There is a humility, fundamentally, that comes from the manager and the skipper [Steve Davis],” says MacPhee. “There’s that great expression to describe them: ‘They don’t think less of themselves they just think less about themselves’. I don’t think you will find someone who has captained an international team and plays in the Premier League or a head coach with the amount of humility they have. Michael’s room at the chateau is worse than those of the rest of the players and staff!”

MacPhee watched O’Neill play for Dundee United, the team he grew up supporting. It’s yet another excuse to reflect on the crazily paved path of football – a former manager of Brechin City and a Forfar Athletic fringe player teaming up to make history with Northern Ireland. But how did MacPhee and O’Neill get together? What could O’Neill see that many in Scotland couldn’t?

“Football is a funny business. It does not have many rules like normal business,” he says. “Everyone said where do you know Michael from, which is a very football sentiment.

“I didn’t know him.”

While at an Aberdeen game to assess Niall McGinn, O’Neill was intrigued when he spotted MacPhee, then assistant coach at St Mirren, scribbling into a notebook. He is hard to miss, with his long blond hair that saw him memorably described by one sports writer as “looking like a roadie from The New Riders of the Purple Sage”.

If that makes him sound like a hippy slacker, then nothing could be further from the truth. The St Andrews-based MacPhee already runs a sports travel firm, AMsportstours, with a £5 million turnover.

But AMsoccer Club, a community football club based in Cupar, is, you 
suspect, the achievement about which he is most proud: more than 500 players attend classes each week. A striker, the 17-year-old Louis Appere, recently went on trial from the Fife club to AS Roma.

So while MacPhee might be helping plot Northern Ireland’s revolution under O’Neill, he has not turned his back completely on Scottish football. He is responsible for rearing talent that could well, in time, benefit Scotland.

“It is a nice time to be involved with Northern Ireland, the humility of the people, the success they have had, the stadium [Windsor Park] getting re-built, the feelgood factor,” he reflects. “But part of me is going: imagine Scotland did this?”

There is also the matter of his own managerial ambitions. What can he do? He admits managing in his own right is “an itch I want to scratch at some stage”.

His time at St Mirren came to an end when Tommy Craig took over in 2014. Some fans were saddened that the club opted for such an uninspiring option when a go-ahead individual as MacPhee was there under their noses.

But he himself can have no complaints about the way things have turned out. Besides, he adores the purity that international football is just about able to maintain.

“There are a few things I really like about international football,” he says. “There is a real innocence to it for a start – money is not really an issue. There are no agents. You don’t need to come. It makes it really nice. It is like being a kid again. All the players are here to play, they are excited. It is not about the money. There is a different vibe. It is a choice.”

So what’s next? “The World Cup,” he replies. But who knows where O’Neill, despite recently signing a new four-year deal, will end up after the summer. Southampton are the latest major club after Celtic to be credited with an interest in him.

“Michael is committed for another four years,” says MacPhee. “World Cups are a little different, only one qualify and then it’s the play-off and our group is difficult: Norway, Czech Republic, Germany and Azerbaijan are really good too….”

So MacPhee is determined to make the most of the experience of being at a major finals, since who knows when Northern Ireland might be back. It is, he accepts, a very unusual existence.

“You are spending a lot of time with different people. I can see why, if you don’t have humility and you don’t have your own personal space, teams like the Dutch implode. Big egos not getting in the team and not with their families for 40 days, or multi-millionaire young players used to being a star. That’s the difference here, the players who are number 12-22 in the squad, they are happy to be here, they are supportive of the group.

“Michael tells how Roy Hodgson told him that when you are picking a squad, pick 16 and then 6 you like. That was Roy’s rule. Do you want a really talented, but high-maintenance player who is actually number 20 in your squad and who doesn’t play hanging around? Probably not is the answer.”

MacPhee describes the management staff meetings at night to discuss the day’s sessions. There are five of them – O’Neill, his garrulous assistant Jimmy Nicholl and coaches Steve Robinson, MacPhee and Maik Taylor.

They recreate a boot-room atmosphere in rather more convivial surroundings of a room inside a chateau set deep in the heart of the French countryside. While perhaps indulging in a glass or two of the local nectar, the talk is football and then more football. Few countries at this tournament will be as well prepared or relaxed in each other’s company.

“The amount of times we have left that with a debate raging, and Michael has gone: ‘let’s sleep on it.” Never mind daring to dream, Northern Ireland’s slogan for this championship, MacPhee is living the dream.

But it feels as if it’s only the start for such a serious operator. Scotland’s loss is very much Northern Ireland’s gain, for the time being at least.