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Austin MacPhee could hold the key to Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland future

By Laure James

Published 02/12/2016

First choice: Austin McPhee
First choice: Austin McPhee

Scotland's interest in Austin MacPhee won't be enough to lure Michael O'Neill to their helm, yet it may be a contributing factor.

Northern Ireland assistant coach MacPhee has emerged as the front-runner to take up the role of performance director with the Scottish FA, a post left vacant since Brian McClair's departure in July.

While he's up against former Cardiff City and Wigan Athletic boss Malky Mackay, Scot MacPhee is believed to be the number one choice for some of the five-man selection panel.

The Irish FA said they were not in a position to comment yesterday, or confirm whether MacPhee is under contract.

But while Association bosses are staying tight-lipped over his future, they recognise he is a man in demand.

MacPhee, 37, resigned from his post at St Mirren in March 2014 to become an assistant coach, after O'Neill had personally head-hunted him. He has become a firm favourite with the playing staff, and delivers O'Neill's philosophy and ethos, successfully.

Following the 3-1 victory over Greece to seal qualification for Euro 2016, O'Neill praised MacPhee's "obsessive attention to detail", which accurately describes the way the IFA's top man goes about his own preparations and the standards he's come to expect.

A level of professionalism comparable to professional clubs and national teams throughout Europe. The sort of thorough competence which triggers an ascent, for teams and for individuals.

MacPhee certainly is the calibre of coach O'Neill would take with him were he to move on; the question is whether MacPhee would realistically tempt him to succeed Gordon Strachan.

It is doubtful, yet overall, there is enough cause for IFA seniors to feel twitchy.

O'Neill lives in Edinburgh, a stone's throw from Scotland's new training centre. Logistics are appealing, as are what would be a significantly larger salary, and being hailed as the new blood to, over time, reverse their fortunes - even for the most publicly modest coach.

To date, the club job which the media had touted him for has not materialised. Hull City privately inquired with a passing interest, yet a formal offer never appeared. O'Neill, therefore, is left to re-evaluate his stock's value.

And a move to the hot seat at Hampden could equate to his worth. At the very least, an invite to discussions would represent the flattering fancy perhaps he, and Northern Ireland, believe he deserves.

Officially, SFA chiefs have backed Strachan as the man to turn their World Cup campaign around.

A source close to the federation, however, told the Belfast Telegraph O'Neill will be on a hit-list if they choose not to renew the former Celtic boss' contract, but suggested intensifying speculation is premature.

"I should imagine O'Neill will be considered. But not before March, and only if Scotland fail to get a result against Slovenia.

"They'd be crazy not to, when you look at O'Neill's credentials. He lives in Edinburgh, close to the new performance centre, and he's done a great deal with a limited squad. He would have arguably better players to work with in Scotland. He's made Northern Ireland, first and foremost, tough to beat; that's crucial."

Equally, Scotland's position must be assessed. Having been desperately profligate when offered a chance to score against England at Wembley, the night Northern Ireland were repeatedly lacerating Azerbaijan, they showed neither the determination nor self-belief essential for any underdog.

Only Malta spare them from sitting bottom of their qualifying group.

For Scotland's supporters, Strachan has exhausted patience. For Northern Ireland fans, the bittersweet reality of having such a gifted manager holding the reins may now surface.

That which began as deserving, and indeed welcome, plaudits for a man who has achieved more than any Northern Ireland manager in three decades, quickly became brushed-off suggestions O'Neill could be set to abandon ship after the European Championship.

The assumption is fans and IFA chiefs alike have been somewhat blinkered to the possibility their number one could follow ambition elsewhere.

While bigger clubs have not chosen to take a bite of O'Neill, quiet interest in MacPhee has been long acknowledged.

"You can't stop that - if people do well, you want them to progress," O'Neill said last month.

"Austin has certainly been a great addition to our backroom staff, [assistant manager] Jimmy [Nicholl] has been a great addition, too.

"But you can't just keep people and not expect them to grow and their own careers to flourish. So what's down the line I don't give a lot of thought to.

"You can't plan for that."

Belfast Telegraph

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