Esmael Goncalves is best-known among Jambos as the man who played a big part in breaking their hearts in the 2013 League Cup final. However, in light of this week’s events, the Portuguese striker can be thought of in a more positive context around Tynecastle as it was he who effectively brought together the exciting new management team in Gorgie.
Ian Cathro, 30, and Austin MacPhee, 37, have made waves in the game in recent years despite their lack of background as football players, and now these bright young operators have been appointed Hearts’ head coach and assistant head coach, respectively. Because of their similarly unconventional routes to prominence and the fact they hail from Dundee and Fife respectively, they had been bracketed as kindred spirits and long-time friends battling against the old boys’ network to make their presence felt in the Scottish game.
However, MacPhee dispelled the perception that he and Cathro go back a long way. “That’s maybe slightly a myth,” said Hearts’ new long-haired No.2, who will continue to double up as Michael O’Neill’s assistant at Northern Ireland. “I knew Ian and he knew me but we weren’t friends or anything.”
When MacPhee was part of Danny Lennon’s backroom team at St Mirren, he contacted Cathro, then assistant manager at Portuguese side Rio Ave, to enquire about players who might benefit the Paisley club. Cathro paved the way for Goncalves to move to St Mirren on loan and it was to prove an inspired decision as the Portuguese party animal scored one and made one as the Buddies roared back to beat Gary Locke’s Hearts side 3-2 at Hampden in March 2013 and secure the club a first major trophy in 26 years.
MacPhee takes up the story, explaining how he and Cathro started developing a bond that would eventually lead to the latter offering the former the chance to become his right-hand man at Hearts.
“The defining moment, and when we started to exchange more ideas about football, was with Esmael Goncalves,” said MacPhee. “I was looking at innovative ways to bring better players into St Mirren. I phoned Ian about players in general. He spoke of Isma and said he had someone who was really talented but we’d need to breathalyse him at training. Ian said he was the biggest party animal and had been frozen out of their squad. He said I knew I liked a challenge and this would really take my man-management to the next level.
“I went into the board and told them there was someone who I felt I could really work with well. The only requirement is that when he comes to stay at the Glynhill Hotel [in Renfrew], you need to get me a room there as well. They asked why, and I went on about how one thing Scottish football doesn’t do well is assimilate foreign players well. So we got the deal done between Rio Ave and St Mirren and Isma arrived on the Wednesday. I picked him up and he didn’t smell of booze.
“I took him to the Glynhill and it was me and him having dinner. I took him into training the next morning on the Thursday and he was unbelievable, to the extent that the other players were like, ‘Austin, why’s he here?’ We were playing Celtic at Hampden at noon on the Saturday in the semi-final of the League Cup, which we went on to win against Hearts, ironically. I had a discussion with Danny about him and he said ‘I’ll maybe bring him off the bench’. I said ‘ach, just start him, he could last 45 minutes or more’. We hadn’t scored against Celtic in eight games before that.
“I stayed in the hotel again with him on the Thursday night and I phoned Ian and said ‘I think we’re going to start him because he’s done really, really well’. Ian said ‘don’t leave him in the hotel by himself’. It was my mum and dad’s silver wedding anniversary celebration on the Friday night, starting at 8.30pm at a little Spanish restaurant in the centre of Glasgow.
“I phoned Danny and said ‘I’m going to take Isma to this party.’ He said ‘Austin, you can’t do that –you’re going to have a big guy from Portugal out with you in Glasgow the night before a big game. He’s been in the paper already – what if a supporter sees you?’ I said ‘no, Ian’s given me the heads-up on him, I need to take him with me’. Danny said ‘on your head be it, then.’ I took him to the party and my missus and kids were there and Isma, who is kicking off at midday the next day, is sitting next to me drinking orange juice and eating Spanish food’. I thought ‘this is good because at least I know where he is’.
“We come out at 11.45pm, we’re walking around Glasgow city centre and he’s due to be kicking off 12 hours later against Celtic, but everything went perfectly and he scored after eight minutes and we won the game. He went on a great run after that, so me and Ian kept communicating about him. From Ian’s guidance on Isma, we began to speak about football more and I ended up doing a coaching study out there in Portugal and here we are now.”
MacPhee is thrilled that Cathro recommended him to Craig Levein as his favoured candidate to become assistant. He is excited by the opportunity and stability afforded at a club which has a clear and established football structure in place under director of football Levein.
“Craig and Ian spoke at length about what they perceive the assistant manager to be like and I satisfied a number of those criteria,” he said. “Ultimately Ian made the decision. I’m sure he had a number of people he could have brought in. For me, coming here, a big part of it was listening to Ann Budge and Craig and knowing that you’re coming somewhere that, in the highs and in the lows, the direction the club is going – the objective, the strategy, the tactics – isn’t going to change. The results and the team might change but there’s a really clear process both in the business model and on the pitch in terms of how they promote staff and young players.”
MacPhee – who started his own youth development football club in Fife and then had jobs with Cowdenbeath, St Mirren and the Mexico national team before arriving in his current positions – is hopeful that he and Cathro can inspire other young coaches without a background to strive for the heights. Asked if their appointments at Hearts can act as a watershed in Scottish football, MacPhee said: “Only if we do well. Sometimes young coaches who haven’t played use that as a barrier. There’s been a lot said about what ex-professionals have said [about Cathro] but I also think it’s up to coaches who haven’t played to be ambitious, to break in, to do that extra thing that you need to do to get in. At the start, nobody’s going to open the door for you. You need to volunteer, do things for free, get yourself to the point where you can get in, and then if you’re good enough, there will be opportunities there.
“There is a balance to be struck. People who haven’t played have got to try harder to get in initially but they shouldn’t use that as a barrier. Likewise, people who have played shouldn’t use that as a CV requirement in coaching. There is no right answer [about the background of the perfect coach]. It could be a watershed moment, but obviously we need to do well.”