Rejecting the SFA performance director’s job, working with Mexico at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, coaching Northern Ireland at their first ever European Championship. Austin MacPhee carries a CV that would be the envy of many Scottish Premiership managers.
Yet his strengths may be best utilised in a supporting role, like the one he stepped into at Hearts last week. MacPhee, 37, is assistant to head coach Ian Cathro and remains part-time No.2 to Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill. He gets the best of both worlds – retaining an international job with a country for whom 2016 will go down in folklore, but also working daily with quality players on the training fields of Riccarton.
Both roles suit MacPhee’s people skills, according to those who know him. His varied background includes playing college football in America, a spell in Romania’s second division and some time in Japan. Add that to charity work in Africa and his experiences at the most recent World Cup and European Championship, and you have a man with a wealth of football, not mention life, knowledge.
Imparting it to players is what he does best. “He’ll have an important part to play in Hearts’ continued progression. I know the kind of questions Austin will ask players,” said Danny Lennon, the manager who launched MacPhee’s coaching career at Cowdenbeath and St Mirren.
“He’ll be leading them down a path and getting as much information from them as he can. He’ll do that with Northern Ireland, get ideas from players on how they perform at their club or getting ideas from their club. He’ll store all that in his mind. He’s a very honest guy whose integrity is second to none.
“Austin’s strengths lie in one-to-one analysis. He’s terrific at breaking it down during coaching and getting the message across to players one to one. At St Mirren, he understood the players a bit better, maybe because they were from the same generation. Austin has worked at all levels of the game and he was well respected at St Mirren. He earned that respect through the good quality work he did.
“Austin was with me at Cowdenbeath and we had success. At St Mirren, we also had success together. Now he’s enjoying success with Northern Ireland beside Michael O’Neill. It’s no coincidence that, prior to Austin leaving St Mirren to coach with Northern Ireland, they were having an indifferent time in terms of results. As soon as Austin joined, they turned the corner. I’m not putting that solely down to Austin but it’s no coincidence. He’s done great work there with Michael.”
MacPhee’s grounding comes from his positive attitude to life and people, something Lennon noticed instantly. His determination to help people has had consequences, though.
“We were over at San Roque in Spain with St Mirren one year and there was a photo taken,” recalled Lennon. “Myself and all the coaching staff are there but Austin had taken his false teeth out. One of the boys asked me the story behind him losing his teeth. I explained Austin does a lot of charity work and he was over in Africa playing in a charity football game.
“This match, believe it or not, was held on a runway at an airport. Somebody came in and smashed Austin in a tackle and he hit the tarmac, knocking all is teeth out. His mouth was in some state but he managed to get it fixed. Austin came in and told me that story and I said: ‘I have to commend you for all that charity work, but fitba’ on a runway? That’ll never take off.’”
“We met on a coaching course in Largs and I just loved his mannerism. He was quite placid in the way he spoke and the way he coached. He’s very relaxed and he made me laugh. Myself, Austin and Charlie Christie got on really well and it ended up being one of the best coaching courses I’ve ever been on. Austin made a real impression on me and I knew that, when I got an opportunity in football, I wanted him to play a part in it.”
That same thought entered Cathro’s mind when the chance came to replace Robbie Neilson at Tynecastle.
“There can only be one leader in there but I think both their strengths and weaknesses will marry off well,” said Lennon. “I always encouraged Austin and other coaches that, whatever is in your mind, you need to bring it out and put it to the manager. In my time at St Mirren, Austin was probably the one who gave me the most input. Whether I listened to him or not, he always had something to offer and that was fantastic.
“That’s what any manager needs – someone to bounce ideas off and also someone to take him down a different road to what he was thinking. The buck stops with the manager, no doubt about that, but Austin will be that buffer between Ian and the players. He does that really well and gets the manager’s point across.
“Remember, it’s very difficult for a manager to get round every player every week. That’s where you need your coaching staff to buy into what you’re doing.
“There’s been a lot said about the ages of Austin and Ian going in at Hearts. These guys have been working with experienced managers at the highest level. Austin was at the European Championship with Northern Ireland in the summer. A lot of Premiership managers in Scotland haven’t had that experience. I believe they deserve their opportunity. They’re lifelong students of the game.”