Interview: Moira Gordon talks to Hearts' Austin MacPhee

Hearts assistant boss MacPhee is ready to play his part in the Easter Road drama, especially if it heads to a penalty shoot-out, writes Moira Gordon

Oh yes he can: For Austin MacPhee, a derby match can be a bit like a pantomime and he has got his players learning their lines for Wednesday.  Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS
Oh yes he can: For Austin MacPhee, a derby match can be a bit like a pantomime and he has got his players learning their lines for Wednesday. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS

The theory is that the form book goes out the window on derby days. In reality, that isn’t always the case. The better team, the better players, usually triumph.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t, sometimes, an element of luck but, with a Scottish Cup quarter-final against Ayr United at stake, Hearts won’t be waiting for fate to wink at them when they take on city rivals Hibernian on Wednesday – they will be pursuing progress for themselves, according to assistant manager Austin MacPhee.

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That means leaving little to chance. On the sidelines, he says he and manager Ian Cathro will join in the pantomime, while on the training ground and on the pitch, small margins will be explored.

The first attempt to resolve the tie ended in stalemate as the pair slugged it out in a stop-start match devoid of flair and hindered by a pitch that is on its last legs and is due to be replaced in the summer. MacPhee hopes that the do-or-die nature of the replay and a different pitch will lead to a positive outcome for the Premiership side within the 90 minutes but he says it would be remiss of the management team not to address the considerations of extra-time and, possibly, penalties.

Practice, they say, makes perfect but it is one thing popping the ball past your own goalkeeper in front of your mates in training and walking up to place the ball on the spot in front of thousands of fans and still managing to maintain a breezy attitude. In one situation there is little but training ground banter on the line. In the big games, those scenarios have much higher stakes.

“I think there are two kinds of fields of thought,” said MacPhee. “[On Tuesday] I went to watch Ayr United v Clyde at Somerset and my dad is a Dunfermline fan so he was over at Hamilton. Dunfermline I think have got a horrendous penalty record this season, I think they have missed nine now but I heard Allan Johnston afterwards saying ‘listen, we take them at training and the boys stroll up and put them in the top corner but when a match comes they don’t’.”

It seems it is only the right practice that allows penalty takers to achieve the mindset needed in the telltale moments. That was something MacPhee became all too aware of as he tried to ensure Northern Ireland were ready for whatever the European Championships could throw at them last summer. “When we went into the Wales game, we were forensic about penalties,” said Michael O’Neill’s assistant at international level.

“Right down to being in the stadium the day before the game and we wired all the players, and had the data on their success from penalty kicks, our keeper had all the tendencies of their players and we believed that was our way of having a marginal gain.

“We even did the walk from the halfway line at the Parc des Princes to the penalty spot and watched their [heart rate] spike. It was really interesting because the players had taken ten penalties each by the 
time they got to that. I’d read an academic paper on it and the rationale is that you take minutes played, position on the pitch, age, experience and then success, and put all that together then you get an algorithm which gives you the likelihood of scoring.

“The ones who had already missed a high percentage of the ten that they had practised had by far the highest spike.

“The least heart rate spike was due to the ones who had had the highest success rate so far. The percentage, it was insurmountable in terms of that.

“Naturally we are trying to focus on winning the game within 90 minutes, however we will be prepared for every eventuality. We will focus on being in the next round of the cup, at home against Ayr United.”

But being prepared for all eventualities is different from accepting the spot-kick lottery as some sort of inevitability.

“We need to get a balance on how we use our time [in the build-up],” said MacPhee. “Drawing the match and getting to a penalty shoot-out is not the focus of our game. In any business you want to make sure that the goal of everybody involved in the process is very clear. I don’t know what the bookies say but I don’t think we’ll be underdogs.”

Despite being away from home, MacPhee accepts the favourites’ tag, happy that Hearts can play a lot better than they did last weekend, with the men who had their derby debuts even better informed as to what will be needed to do that.

“A lot had been said before the game about foreign boys coming into the game and could they handle the derby atmosphere and the environment and the physical side of things, because that was always going to be the way it was, and I think all the new players stuck at it.

“Naturally we wanted to win the game at Tynecastle but there are circumstances in a derby where the form book goes out the window. Hibs played in a way which, at times, meant the flow of the game wasn’t necessarily something we could control. The game stopped a lot and there were a lot of fouls and there were a lot of opportunities for balls into our box. I thought the players showed a lot of strength to defend those situations, when the game maybe became a little bit awkward.

“We understand that, from supporters, there isn’t just a big expectation to win the game but there is also a fear of losing it. At times that nervousness can come on to the pitch. We are looking forward to going to Easter Road for the replay and we believe that we will improve on the performance we gave at Tynecastle. The fans have been magnificent away from home, in all the games we have had so far. And that will be a good environment for us to go and win the game.”

Doing that would help the new management duo build on the momentum that had been gained with league victories over Rangers and Motherwell. That is not lost on MacPhee but he stresses that they have to maintain a cool head.

“You understand the ramifications of losing the derby. We’re not naive as to what they are. It’s so important for the supporters. We know what happened last year. But you don’t make good decisions when you’re emotional, and as a consequence you have to be balanced between showing enough emotion that people respond to, and inwardly having calm to make the right decision at the right time and not letting the heat of the moment cloud our judgment.

“Sometimes at the side of the pitch it can be a bit like a pantomime, and you need to play it as well. Referees are human as well and they get influenced in a number of different ways, and if they’re getting influenced by one team and not the other it’ll be to our detriment. So sometimes you have to put on your costume and take part. Everyone has to see we’re fighting as well.”