Austin MacPhee ready to live out World Cup dream for real

The first time Austin MacPhee experienced a World Cup, he and a friend drove round France in a '¨battered Renault 5 supporting Scotland. As assistant manager of Northern Ireland, the Fifer will enjoy more luxury travel if he has reason to be in Russia next summer.
Michael ONeill is hoping his Northern Ireland squad can overcome Switzerland in the play-offs.Michael ONeill is hoping his Northern Ireland squad can overcome Switzerland in the play-offs.
Michael ONeill is hoping his Northern Ireland squad can overcome Switzerland in the play-offs.

MacPhee now knows 
Switzerland stand in the way. Yesterday’s draw, which pitched Northern Ireland against the Swiss, with the first leg to be played in Belfast on 9 November, is another tough test for Michael O’Neill’s side. But MacPhee, also Hearts assistant manager, knows it could have been worse. He is happy to have avoided Italy or Croatia.

With O’Neill on duty in Zurich, MacPhee watched the draw unfold at Oriam, the Hearts training base at Riccarton. Later, at a Big Hearts charity event, he spoke to Kyle Lafferty and Michael Smith, two of the club’s Northern Ireland corps – Aaron Hughes, their 108-times capped centre-half, is currently in England, desperately trying to rehabilitate after a calf injury.

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Lafferty played in Switzerland for a short spell, moving to Sion in the Swiss Super League after leaving Rangers.

“He has some knowledge of the league, it all helps at this stage, where small margins could mean everything,” says MacPhee, who is aware Scots have more interest in the outcome than might otherwise be the case.

After Gordon Strachan’s departure last week, speculation linking O’Neill to the vacant Scotland post got stronger. Stewart Regan, the SFA chief executive, fanned the flames when he stated they were prepared to wait until next summer to make a permanent appointment.

Regan would prefer to make it sooner given the choice. It’s easy to imagine the SFA chief executive banging the table in frustration when the draw was made.

He might have preferred Italy or Croatia, two teams O’Neill wanted to avoid because they would be the ultimate tests of Northern 
Ireland’s resolve.

Although a top team, Switzerland are one of the two names Northern Ireland might have picked to play. Republic of Ireland have been paired with the other preferences, Denmark, who are ranked 19 in the world.

“The only way that everyone connected with Northern Ireland is looking at it is trying to get to the World Cup,” says MacPhee, pictured. “It was 20 years ago I drove to France in a Renault 5 with a mate to support Scotland, and I remember how special it was.

“To be three hours away from being at the World Cup as a coach is something I’ve only dreamt of. We all felt we did ourselves justice in getting out the group in Euro 2016. It gives you a taste of it. You want to get back.”

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“It is difficult to say the moment will come again,” he adds. “You need to be on the coaching staff of a nation on the rise. Now we are in the play-off the fear of not being at the World Cup, and knowing for many this could be their last opportunity, could be the motivating force that gets us through.”

Scotland could be included among those teams “on the rise” after finishing their qualifying group strongly, if not quite strongly enough. On the issue of the Scotland vacancy, MacPhee does feel the best fit is someone with a deep knowledge of international football. “I’m not convinced club management to international management are transferable skills,” he says.

But his priority is Northern Ireland. A casual glance at both teams suggests Switzerland are heavy favourites. As well as their higher ranking, 11 compared to Northern Ireland’s 23, they can select 
players from the English Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga and Serie A. They have also won seven of eight matches this year.

But as MacPhee stresses, only Germany, who beat Northern Ireland 3-1 in Belfast earlier this month, have scored a competitive goal at Windsor Park in the last World Cup qualifying campaign.

“I think the game is 50-50,” he says. “Our home form suggests we will put in a strong performance at Windsor Park, which is the first game. We have been to demanding places and got results. We went to Prague, Finland.

“In every game at Windsor Park, including against Germany, I felt there has been a ten-minute spell when we could score twice.”

“Even if we draw 0-0 you can qualify by drawing 1-1 away.”