Big interview: Austin MacPhee reveals why Conor Washington can hit 20 goals for Hearts

Austin MacPhee resembles a protective father when discussing Hearts’ Northern Ireland players. It is a by-product of his dual coaching role at club and international level.

By Barry Anderson
Thursday, 8th August 2019, 6:30 am
Updated Thursday, 8th August 2019, 7:30 am
Conor Washington
Conor Washington

There is no surprise in his belief that Conor Washington can become the first Tynecastle striker since John Robertson to score 20 goals in a season. MacPhee held equal faith that Kyle Lafferty, Aaron Hughes, Michael Smith and Bobby Burns would succeed in Edinburgh.

Washington is preparing for a home league debut against Ross County on Saturday with the conviction that the Hearts coaching staff will back him to the hilt. None more so than MacPhee. At his own insistence, the player returned earlier than expected from an eye injury to play a cameo role in last week’s Premiership opener at Aberdeen. Such appetite will serve him well.

The challenge for Hearts is to restore some of the 27-year-old’s natural instincts and get him bulging nets again. Last season at Sheffield United was frustrating, much like the previous two at Queens Park Rangers. MacPhee wants to unearth the forward who was rattling goals for Peterborough United up until summer 2016. Breaking Robertson’s record will depend on the success of this restoration project.

“Conor is an uncoached player. He didn’t come from an academy,” says MacPhee, assistant coach with both Hearts and Northern Ireland. “He was a 16-year-old playing tough men’s football [at St Ives Town in Cambridgeshire], learning how to deal with the physical side of the game. He is powerful and quick and runs behind the line all the time. Hardly any players do that any more. They are all link-up players or wide men who get in behind.

“I’d describe Conor almost as old-fashioned in that regard. I think that’s because his natural instinct – to run towards the goal with or without the ball, hoping to score like a kid in the playground – hasn’t been coached out of him between the ages of eight and 20. He just played.

“The attributes I’ve mentioned attracted Les Ferdinand and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to him. They signed him for QPR but then tried to change his game and make him more sophisticated. Things that got him a £3million move, they didn’t ask him to do. They asked him to do other things like drop in, which don’t come naturally to him. We want to get the Conor Washington back who is a bit more raw, off-the-cuff, tenacious, goalscoring. We want the player who left Peterborough, not the one after his first year at QPR. That is a different player.

“With Northern Ireland recently, he played like the lad who was at Peterborough. That’s who caught the eye of the national team. I’ve known him for almost five years now and I feel very comfortable that he will give John Robertson’s record a good crack. As I did with Kyle Lafferty.”

Like Washington, Lafferty joined Hearts as a free agent. He struck 19 goals in season 2017/18 before leaving for a return to Rangers. He was recently released from his Ibrox contract 12 months early and stated in an interview this week that his ideal move would be back to Tynecastle. However, there is next to no chance of that transpiring. Washington is the new No.9.

The story behind his recruitment by Hearts is a fascinating one of persistence. During June’s international break, Northern Ireland stayed in three different hotels preparing for a European Championship qualifying double header against Estonia and Belarus. A week in Austria, three nights in Tallinn and three in Minsk were perfect for MacPhee to exercise his powers of persuasion. It seems he barely left Washington’s side.

The striker went for breakfast – MacPhee was there talking about Hearts. On the bus back from training – MacPhee was there talking about Hearts. Chilling out in the lobby – yip, you’ve already guessed. You could understand if Washington spent much of that international fortnight visualising images of long hair and hearing that Fife accent in his sleep.

The endavour achieved the desired aim. Despite interest from several clubs in England, Washington signed a two-year Hearts contract after returning from Northern Ireland duty. MacPhee’s smile as the forward was unveiled outside Tynecastle was akin to that of a proud parent.

“Our international players have been the spine of the team: Steven Naismith, John Souttar, Christophe Berra, Arnaud Djoum, Michael Smith, Kyle Lafferty when he was here. Players at that level will consistently help the team,” he says. “I’d spoken to Conor about six months previously about his plans because he was frustrated at Sheffield United. I did think it would be very difficult to get him based on the economy in the English Championship. Even at the top of League One they pay so much money.

“When we were away with Northern Ireland in June, we were in hotels for two weeks – so he couldn’t get away. During that time, I began to feel his next club wasn’t about the money. Once I knew that, we had a realistic chance.”

MacPhee used the adulation bestowed on some Hearts players to persuade Washington he could become the next icon in Gorgie. “Hearts is a special club for the wages we can pay. It can really make a player feel alive. That’s what I told Conor. When you’re at a point in your career where you haven’t had an opportunity, love, confidence, success, I think Hearts can pick you up.

“You have a full stadium of people who care about the club hugely. Supporters invest in the club. Hearts will never be ‘alright’. It’s either really good or not good enough. It polarises opinion all the time. It keeps you on your toes. You can get huge adulation at a really big football club here.

“What we don’t have is the TV money. Hearts is unquestionably a much bigger club than some English Premier League clubs in terms of supporter base, history and attendance. What we don’t have is the TV money to pay inflated salaries like English football.”

Washington could have earned a more lucrative contract down south, but the merits of rejuvenating his career in Scotland were drilled into his mind by MacPhee.

“Conor is bright and he has come from real life. Once he got to the point that it wasn’t about the money, I was very confident I could explain to him what Hearts could do for him if he performs here. There is evidence of that with Lafferty, of course, and Michael Smith. Aaron Hughes chose to end his career at Hearts.”

Washington is the latest in a list of Northern Irishmen who chose Tynecastle for a variety of reasons. With MacPhee willing him on, he is now ready for a serious go at a goalscoring record held by the legendary Robertson since 1992.