The future of Scottish football could lie in the hands of a long-haired 37-year- old English and psychology graduate from Cupar if Austin MacPhee, right, can reach agreement with the Scottish Football Association to become their new performance director.
MacPhee, the current assistant manager of Northern Ireland, has emerged as the preferred candidate after a series of interviews conducted earlier this month for the post vacated by Brian McClair in July.
Considered an outside bet at the beginning of the process to identify McClair’s successor, MacPhee managed to impress ahead of Malky Mackay, John Collins, former Celtic chief scout John Park and Alan Irvine, the former head of the Everton Academy.
The SFA, alert he could have other options, plan to hand MacPhee a long-term contact – up to five years – to help implement the aims set out in Project Brave, a programme devised by McClair before his sudden departure, among other responsibilities.
The programme has since been developed by a working group from the association and hinges on such changes as replacing the current SPFL development league with a reserve team set-up, mixing older players with under-21s.
But this represents only a small part of what the post of performance director entails. Crucially, MacPhee will also be expected to oversee the national team’s development at Under-21, 19 and 16 levels, as well as take charge of such key areas as scouting, performance schools and the development of elite coaches.
If MacPhee decides to leave his role with Northern Ireland, who are currently positioned in a play-off place in their World Cup qualifying group, it would be another remarkable chapter in the Scot’s rise to prominence.
His left-field path to such a potential key role within Scottish football is similar to the one taken by 30-year-old Ian Cathro, who is understood to be preparing to replace Robbie Neilson as Hearts’ head coach.
MacPhee’s departure from St Mirren’s coaching staff in 2014, after Tommy Craig replaced Danny Lennon as manager, caused few headlines at the time.
But it precipitated another incredible journey for the Fifer, who was recruited by the Mexican Football Federation to provide video analysis of Mexico’s opponents at the World Cup in Brazil.
He was also invited to join Michael O’Neill’s backroom staff as Northern Ireland raised eyebrows everywhere by qualified for Euro 2016 as group winners. They then caused a stir in France by reaching the second stage. MacPhee has since become O’Neill’s de facto No 2.
after assistant manager Steve Robinson left after Euro 2016 to take charge of Oldham Athletic.
But MacPhee’s football education started long ago. He played two senior games for Forfar Athletic in his early 20s before deciding to go abroad to learn more about the game and expand his cultural horizons. He headed to the United States on a sports scholarship.
After graduating from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, he moved to a third-tier club at Braila in Romania before a spell playing in Japan.
He credits his determination to learn more about football coaching to a long spell out injured while in America. “I had a blood clot and nearly lost my leg – I had four operations on my left knee,” he told The Scotsman more than two years ago. “I was out for 24 months, I thought about football a lot, I tried to see it differently.”
On his return to Scotland at the age of 27, MacPhee became coach of Cupar Hearts, leading them to the final of the Scottish Amateur Cup at Hampden in his first season. He also started a youth football academy, AMsoccer, which now caters for hundreds of young footballers.