How three world disasters shaped Hearts assistant Austin MacPhee
Losing to Hibs on Sunday would be a disaster for Hearts fans. Likewise for Austin MacPhee, although Craig Levein's assistant coach can also claim a much deeper understanding of the word.
MacPhee had the misfortune to find himself in New York on September 11, 2001 – the day of the Twin Towers terrorist atrocity. He was then in Thailand on Boxing Day 2004 when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck, killing more than 250,000 people across 14 different countries. He even gave blood to help the injured. In a frightening trio of coincidences, MacPhee also happened to be living in Japan in 2005 during the Fukuoka earthquake.
Thankfully, he was not directly caught up in the above tragedies. The trauma remains in his mind but he is now focused on helping Hearts survive in the Scottish Cup this weekend. Whatever occurs at Tynecastle Park in Sunday’s Scottish Cup fourth round tie won’t shock him. Not much can rock you when you’ve been as close as he has to the ruthlessness of terrorism and Mother Nature.
“It gives you a different perspective, certainly. These are moments in time for the world, aren’t they? It was just coincidence I was there,” he told the Evening News. “I wasn’t caught up in any of the events personally. I only got involved after the tsunami in Thailand.
“One of the beaches hit badly was owned by a Swedish travel company. It was the biggest ever single loss of Swedish life because they have never been involved in a war. Folk with blonde hair and blue eyes normally have the same blood type but they ran out of blood to do all the amputations.
“All foreigners with a pale complexion were asked to give blood, so that was one thing I did to try and help out. They were airlifting people from the beaches to Bangkok. Different centres were set up for giving blood because Thai people have a different blood type.”
The 38-year-old from Kirkcaldy lived in America for four years, Romania for a year and Japan for four years. The experiences shaped his life before he went on to achieve prominent coaching positions at Tynecastle and with the Northern Ireland national team.
“When I was playing with Forfar I was asked to go to America on a scholarship,” he recalled. “I was in my second year of the scholarship in North Carolina and my brother was over visiting. We decided to drive up to New York and that was when the Twin Towers were hit. The earthquake was when I was living in Japan, and I’d gone to Thailand for New Year when the tsunami happened.”
He has heard all the jokes about being a jinx but, after a five-day trip to Spain with Hearts, he is focused on his club breaking a recent curse against Hibs. Winning the cup tie would be a first in ten attempts against their Edinburgh rivals.
“It’s not just that. We’re aware of the importance of this game in the context of the whole season,” said MacPhee. “We are hoping to push for European football. Right now, Hibs, Rangers, Celtic and Aberdeen are above us in the league. The significance of winning this game is important because the supporters certainly know we haven’t had the best results against Hibs in recent games.
“Defensively, we are a lot more robust now. We were a bit more expansive before. There is a confidence from getting six clean sheets in a row. The confidence of being at home gives us an extra impetus to go and win the game. The story played itself out last year where we drew 0-0 in the cup and then lost the replay 3-1. The focus on winning that first game might make us more offensive. We are excited about the game and we will be positive.”
The winter training camp on the Costa Blanca offered some alternative preparation. It also gave MacPhee more time with coaching colleagues Jon Daly and Liam Fox, who are learning under Levein’s tutelage like him.
“I’ve worked with Danny Lennon, Michael O’Neill, Ian Cathro, Jon Daly for a month, and Craig. They all have different ways of doing things,” said MacPhee. “As an assistant, although you might have your own ideas, you’re a sounding board for the manager. You can debate with them.
“I just want Hearts to be as successful as they can. Consistent European football, winning trophies and competing towards the top end of the league is what we want. One of the most exciting things about the club is what we saw in Spain.
“We played Vitesse Arnhem, who have been in the Europa League group stages. We finished the game with eight academy players on the pitch. Then we played Nurnberg who are pushing for promotion to the Bundesliga and are signing players for millions of pounds. We finished that game with seven academy players on the pitch.
“I think that’s exciting. The quality at the academy, in time, should help Hearts overperform.”
Before the Spanish sojourn, MacPhee’s quest for knowledge took him to China with his friend and Northern Ireland manager, O’Neill. There was chat about the Scottish Football Association pursuing O’Neill as the new Scotland manager, but MacPhee was reluctant to divulge details.
“We went to visit Shanghai Shenhua and looked at the infrastructure of Chinese football, which is remarkable considering they’ve got 1billion people over there,” he said.
“We spoke a lot – about Michael’s career, my career, we spoke about a lot of things. Does Chinese beer taste good? What time do your kids get up in the morning? Of course, we talked football as well.
“With international football, it’s hard to just stay in Edinburgh.
“My only time in the entire calendar year when I had a window of opportunity to go somewhere was the beginning of January.
“We were invited across to China, which is different. I like things that are different. I was interested and inquisitive about what they are doing there.
“The Chinese president says they want to try and win the World Cup by 2050. They have the biggest football academy in the world there with 3000 players in the same place, and Shanghai is a nice city.”