WHEN he was a player, Owen Coyle admits that pragmatism trumped over patriotism. So convinced was he that he wasn’t good enough to play for Scotland, he jumped at an offer to represent the Republic of Ireland.
It is a decision which almost took him to a World Cup finals, narrowly missing out on a place in Jack Charlton’s squad for the 1994 tournament in the United States.
Coyle remains fiercely proud of his Irish heritage but both his accent and his sense of footballing identity are firmly rooted in the land where he first made his name as a prolific striker and then one of the most highly regarded young managers of recent years.
Currently in between jobs following his dismissal by Bolton Wanderers last month, Coyle was back on home turf in Glasgow yesterday in his role as a Scottish Football Association youth ambassador at a Tesco Bank Football Challenge event at the Toryglen Regional Football Centre.
He may yet find himself being approached by the SFA for an altogether more elevated post as he has emerged as one of the leading potential candidates to succeed Craig Levein as the new Scotland manager.
Coyle has also been linked with the Republic of Ireland job in the recent past, amid speculation over Giovanni Trapattoni’s future, but it is clear he feels a strong affinity to Scotland despite his status as a former Irish international. “My mum will probably fall out with me here,” he smiled, in reference to his Donegal parentage. “But the simplest answer to whether I feel more Irish or Scottish is that at the time I was asked to play for Ireland, I was a part-timer with Dumbarton in the Scottish First Division.
“I was asked if I wanted to play for the Irish under-21 side back in 1987. At that time, the Scotland under-21 side was one of the best we’d had for a long, long time. Seven or eight of them were first-team regulars, a lot of them with the Old Firm – lads like Ian Durrant, Derek Ferguson, Derek Whyte, Peter Grant, Joe Miller, Robert Fleck and Ian Ferguson.
“I was 9st 7lbs at the time – before I bulked up to 9st 12lbs later on my career! So it was a very simple choice for me when Ireland asked me to represent them.
“My ambition was to play at the highest level possible and, if I’m being totally honest, I didn’t and still don’t think I would have been good enough to play for Scotland.
“But the Irish watched me play six or seven times for Dumbarton and my first game for them was actually against Scotland. It was a European Under-21 Championship qualifier at Tynecastle in February 1987.
“I remember big Alex McLeish and the St Mirren goalkeeper Campbell Money were the two over-age players in the Scotland team that night. In the first minute, I waltzed past Big Eck and then took the ball round Campbell and scored. Scotland still won 4-1, though. Robert Fleck got a hat-trick and Ian Ferguson scored the other one. As I say, they had a fantastic team back then.”
Coyle actually managed just seven minutes of action for the Irish senior team, replacing Tommy Coyne in the final stages of a famous 1-0 friendly win over the Netherlands in Tilburg just two months before the 1994 World Cup finals.
At that time, Coyle was perhaps at the height of his powers as a player with Bolton Wanderers and was regarded as a serious candidate for the Irish squad which travelled to the USA. But he lost out as Charlton named Coyne, John Aldridge, Tony Cascarino and David Kelly as the four strikers in his party. Coyle never won another cap for Ireland but has no regrets.
“I’ve got Irish parents and I’m very proud of that,” he added. “That will never change. But I’m Gorbals born and bred.”
At 46, Coyle knows he may be regarded by some as still too young for the Scotland job. But, while he understands the perception that international football is better suited to older, more experienced coaches, he does not feel it would necessarily preclude him from taking it on at this stage of his career.
“There is a lot of merit in that argument,” said Coyle. “International football management has always been associated with the older age group but I think it has changed a wee bit in recent times. Look at Michael O’Neill in charge of Northern Ireland, or Slaven Bilic when he was with Croatia. They are both younger coaches. I’ve always loved working day-to-day with players, I’ve never made any secret of that, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t listen to what the SFA had to say if they were to consider me.
“We’ll wait and see what comes up. There are fantastic candidates for the job, such as Gordon Strachan. There are a number of others out there. We’re very lucky in that respect and I’m pretty sure the SFA will get the right man.
“What I will say is that we have a good group of players and you want the national team to do well. There is no reason why we can’t do so again. I think everyone would now accept that to finish above either of the current top two in our World Cup group is going to be extremely difficult.
“We could probably win all our remaining games and still not do it. It’s not like club football, there are no transfer windows. The new man will have to work with the players currently available and the younger ones coming through.
“But whoever comes in would still want to finish as high up the group table as possible and then give us a chance of qualifying for the next European Championship in 2016.”