BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
AUSTIN MacPHEE went to extraordinary lengths to ensure Northern Ireland were ready for a fraught Euro 2016 penalty shootout against Wales that never happened.
And while that Hearts assistant manager is adamant the Jambos can see off Hibs in normal time, he insists he will be prepared again if their Scottish Cup showdown goes the distance.
After a turgid 0-0 stalemate at Tynecastle last Sunday, the city rivals will cross swords at Easter Road on Wednesday night knowing an inviting home tie against Championship strugglers Ayr United awaits in the quarter-finals.
It would be fair to say MacPhee has considered that eventuality, as he offered a fascinating insight into Northern Ireland’s preparation for their last-16 clash against Wales in the summer at the Parc des Princes, which ultimately ended in a 1-0 win for Chris Coleman’s side.
MacPhee, who is one of Michael O’Neill’s coaches at international level, said: “Drawing the match and getting to a penalty shoot-out is not the focus of our game. We are trying to focus on winning the game within 90 minutes, however we will be prepared for every eventuality.
“When we went into the Wales game with Northern Ireland, we were forensic about penalties.
“Right down to being in the stadium the day before the game, we wired all the players and had the data on their success from penalty kicks. Our keeper had all the tendencies of their players and we believed that was our way of having a marginal gain to progress.
“We even did the walk from the halfway line at the Parc des Princes to the penalty spot and watched their heart rate spike.
“I read an academic paper on it and all kinds of stuff. The theory and rationale is you consider minutes played, their position, age, experience and success rate. You put all that together then you get an algorithm which gives you the likelihood of scoring. We put that together on everyone in the squad.
“However, my dad is a Dunfermline fan so I know they have a horrendous penalty record this season! I think they have missed nine now.
“I heard Allan Johnston afterwards saying ‘we take them at training and the boys stroll up and put them in the top corner but when a match comes they don’t’, so there are different schools of thought.”
The first encounter between the sides last Sunday turned into a war of attrition as both teams struggled to adapt to a pock-marked Tynecastle pitch, but MacPhee mercifully expects a more watchable clash this week.
He continued: “Hibs pitch is a bit bigger and isn’t on the verge of being replaced, like ours, so it’s a better surface. There’s no secret in the way we want to play. We want to play in a way that excites the fans, has a positive element and some style.
“You could look at it and see that Easter Road could be an environment where we could get things going a little bit more. That’s what we will be looking to do.”
Nevertheless, he is proud of the way Hearts’ new-look side adapted to the rough-and-tumble of the derby cauldron.
MacPhee added: “A lot had been said before the game about foreign boys coming into the game and could they handle the derby atmosphere, the environment and the physical side of things.
“The ball was coming into our box a lot. It was going in from 90 yards, 80 yards, 70 yards, corners, and that can lead to mistakes.
“I think all the new players stuck at it. I thought there was a strength of character and unity with the boys, who have only recently come together.
“There are other things we will try to address in the second game and we are confident we can progress.”