NORTHERN Ireland’s playoff defeat to Switzerland last weekend was heartbreaking for two reasons. There’s the obvious in that their long wait to qualify for a World Cup gets extended to 32 years, and harder to take given that they missed out to a disputed penalty over the two legs.
More worryingly for the Northern Irish FA, they are set to lose their manager Michael O’Neill after six years in charge.
Having taken Northern Ireland from 129th in the World to 20th in that period, taking them to the last 16 of Euro 2016 and to the brink of next summers World Cup, O’Neill’s stock is high and he will be attracting interest from various club sides and on the International scene.
One of those international sides in the frame is Scotland – and SFA Chief Executive Stewart Regan has made his move!
In terms of what Scotland require to take the team forward in the post-Strachan era, O’Neill ticks the boxes. He’s achieved so much with a more limited squad of players to choose from than Scotland, with the bulk of his squad coming from the Scottish Premiership and the lower reaches of the English Championship to League One, yet has been able to mould them into a respectable international team punching well above their weight.
Another factor in O’Neill’s makeup is that he picks players on form, no matter what level they come from. This was emphasised when he dropped Roy Carroll, once on the books of Manchester United and West Ham, for Hamilton goalkeeper Michael McGovern, who went onto be, arguably, Northern Ireland’s best player in France last year, earning him a move to Norwich. Another example of picking a player on form over one with reputation was picking Josh Magennis, then at Kilmarnock, ahead of Kyle Lafferty when the former Rangers man stopped playing regular first team football. Magennis has proven to be a handy rather than spectacular player at this level ever since, again emphasising O’Neill’s judgement in not being afraid to change from the so-called tried and tested. This was something Strachan was heavily criticised for, being too stubborn and loyal to players, despite some of them not playing regular first team football.
If he takes the Scotland job, he’d have an even bigger pool of players to pick from than the one he’s worked wonders with. It could be argued that only Gareth MacAuley, Johnny Evans and Steven Davis would get into a combined Scotland/Northern Ireland lineup, which emphasises the depth we have in comparison to our neighbours across the Irish Sea, therefore the tools are there for him to work with and improve the fortunes of our national side.
The other pull for the SFA to go for Michael O’Neill is that he is based in Edinburgh, where he spent part of his playing career from his time at Hibs. Other candidates might find it difficult to relocate North of the Border, in Strachan’s case he remained in England, so it will be easier for O’Neill to do his job behind the scenes in addition to what he does with the national team on international week.
Whilst Michael O’Neill ticks the boxes to be a perfect fit for Scotland, the million dollar question is would he take it?
At 48, O’Neill is still young enough to have another go at club management, something he no doubt craves having only had jobs at Brechin and Shamrock Rovers previously. His achievements at the latter were impressive, ending a 60 year wait for a League title and taking them into the group stages of the Europa League before answering his country’s call in 2011. He was rumoured to have turned down the chance to manage Norwich City earlier this year to focus on trying to get his country to the World Cup, so he will be in demand for a club job as the sacking season in England enters full swing. Sunderland are one side who could make enquiries, though O’Neill will need to take serious thought before considering that job, like a Derek a McInnes did when he turned them down.
There is still the possibility he could opt to remain the Northern Ireland manager, and the Norther Irish FA have made an attempt to tie him down on an improved contract. However, that looks unlikely as he has taken them as far as he realistically can, plus he has ageing players on the verge of retirement and there isn’t much coming through.
Scotland are aware that in order to lure Michael O’Neill, they had to make their move now and reports are the SFA have made an approach to speak to him. Compensation will need to be paid as he has two years on his Northern Ireland contract left, however the scale of the compensation is significantly less than it is for a Premiership or English Championship club. Regan will then need to make him an offer he cannot refuse before English sides come calling to remain in international football, an arena he is clearly suited to.
There are traditionalist Scotland fans who want only to see a Scot in charge of our national team. Whilst I applaud that sentiment, none of the Scottish candidates excite the Tartan Army or possess a CV that O’Neill has. Alex McLeish has been out of work for a few years and Paul Lambert’s track record is modest at best, beyond those two there is no Scottish candidate good enough to manage our national team.
The SFA have done the right thing in going for Michael O’Neill to become the next Scotland manager. His track record speaks for itself and is the perfect fit for taking the nation forward. It’s now up to the man from Northern Ireland to decide if he wants to take on another Home Nation and take them back to a major Finals after a long wait!