Interview | Austin MacPhee on Esmael Goncalves, getting more respect than Pele & coaching without a playing CV



HEARTS assistant head coach Austin MacPhee has revealed how his relationship with Ian Cathro blossomed thanks to former St Mirren wild-child Esmael Goncalves, recalling: “Ian told me ‘you will need to breathalyse him at training.’”

While Hearts’ new management duo were aware of each other during their formative years as coaches in Tayside, MacPhee is adamant the notion they are long-time friends is a “myth”.

Instead, they became allies in 2013 when Cathro – then assistant manager of Rio Ave – organised for little-known forward Goncalves to be loaned St Mirren, largely thanks to the efforts of former Buddies coach MacPhee.

Hearts’ new management (MacPhee left) team is presented by owner Ann Budge

The 25-year-old went on to become a cult hero in Paisley, scoring on his debut to help Danny Lennon’s to a 3-2 triumph over Celtic in the League Cup semi-final before they went on to lift the trophy, ironically with a win over Hearts.

And MacPhee will never forget the challenge to his man management skills posed by new Jambos boss Cathro when he dispatched ‘Esma’ to these shores.

“I knew Ian and he knew me but we weren’t friends or anything,” explained MacPhee. “The defining moment, and when we started to exchange more ideas about football, was with Esmael Goncalves.

“I phoned Ian about players in general. He spoke of Esma and said he had someone who was really talented – but said ‘you will 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.

“Esma arrived on the Wednesday, I took him into training the next morning and he was unbelievable, to the extent that the other players were like ‘Austin, why is he here?’

“Ian had emphasised ‘don’t leave him in the hotel by himself’, so when it was my mum and dad’s silver wedding anniversary celebration on the Friday night, I phoned Danny [Lennon] and said ‘I’m going to take Esma 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’, but I convinced him.

“So Esma is sitting next to me drinking orange juice and eating Spanish food and I thought ‘this is good because at least I know where he is’. We come out at 11.45pm – he’s kicking off 12 hours later against Celtic – and he goes on to score after eight minutes and we win the game.

“From Ian’s guidance on Esma, we began to speak about football more and I ended up doing a coaching study out there in Portugal and here we are now.”

Little wonder, then, that the prospect of managing the relatively placid Hearts dressing room does not faze the well-travelled MacPhee.

“People talk about the dressing-room like you’re going into some kind of zoo,” continued MacPhee. “Players want to see that you can make them better. If you can do that, they’ll listen to you.

“The only thing that helps you govern the dressing-room is respect. Pele could lose respect in ten minutes and I could gain respect in ten minutes.

“He won’t lose respect as a player but he’s going to lose respect as a manager if players think ‘he can’t coach us very well.’”

Like Cathro, MacPhee boasts modest – albeit fascinating – playing credentials, turning out for Wilmington Seahawks in the U.S., Romanian side CF Braila and FA Kariya of Japan.

However, a journey from Cupar Hearts to Northern Ireland, via Mexico, has seen him become a highly sought after coach, attracting interest from LA Galaxy and the SFA, who were keen to make him their new performance director.

“There’s been a lot made of what ex-professionals have said [about Cathro] but I also think it’s up to coaches who haven’t played to be ambitious,” added MacPhee.

“At the start, nobody is 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 – then if you’re good enough, there will be opportunities.

“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 see that as a CV requirement in coaching.”