Welcome to the post-Michael O’Neill dead zone. On the morning of the draw for the inaugural Nations League tournament there’s not a creditable figurehead in Lausanne to ponder Scotland’s prospects.
Blazers to the right, blazers to the left. But no-one with hands-on, football-based knowledge to analyse whoever Scotland are paired with from the third tier of international football’s fledgling competition. It isn’t essential of course. Qualifying prospects are not enhanced by having a manager in situ at the draw. But it’s disheartening when the premier candidate for the vacant post is there with someone else.
SFA chief executive Stewart Regan and president Alan McRae, Scotland’s representatives at the draw, will be doing well if they can avoid looking spurned as Michael O’Neill makes his way to sit with the Northern Irish delegation. Scotland, meanwhile, will greet this new era by wheeling out officials currently fielding unprecedented levels of opprobrium from fans. It isn’t the best time to be asking Scotland Supporters Club members to renew their subscription, which is what is currently happening.
But then timing is so rarely right in football. Regan confidently explained the SFA was under little pressure to move hastily following Gordon Strachan’s enforced departure in October. They could, if necessary, wait until after the World Cup. But there’s such a thing as letting things slide.
Regan is now left to try to put a positive spin on O’Neill’s knockback. So much better to have had a new manager there with Regan to shake the hands of opposition managers and then pose for photographs with them, as is the protocol at such events. Instead there will be a big blank space where the Scotland manager ought to be.
Worse, potential alternative candidates are taking turns to rule themselves out of contention. They either explain it’s something they’d consider doing “in the future”, like Derek McInnes, or let their actions speak for them. Paul Lambert and David Moyes have happily accepted roles elsewhere. Others, such as Alex McLeish, are reckoned to have had their time.
Then there’s the case of Craig Levein. Experienced and, at 53, a good age for international football, on the face of it he would be a valid contender. He has also been responsible for turning round the fortunes of Hearts, who are on a ten-match unbeaten streak. They haven’t lost a goal for seven games and conceded just once in their last nine. There’s just one problem of course. Levein has been there, done that and once revealed he’d entertained fleeing to Australia after it all went wrong. It is pretty certain he would reject the offer were it to come, which of course it won’t.
Which brings us to the case of another proud Scot who has been there and done that. While it did not go spectacularly right for Strachan, it did not go spectacularly wrong either. After all, Scotland were just a goal away from clinching a World Cup play-off place.
While it did feel like it was the right time for change, it’s beginning to look like it was change for change’s sake. Had O’Neill already given tacit agreement he’d take the Scotland post, then ditching Strachan might have been understandable. But he hadn’t. Indeed, he couldn’t, since Northern Ireland were still in the qualifying equation. To be fair to the SFA, there were indications he would be very interested in making the switch.
But as we scan a barren landscape for suitable alternatives it’s impossible to avoid being distracted by a diminutive, ginger-haired figure who is now unemployed and yet who, following O’Neill’s rejection, remains as compelling a candidate for the Scotland post as any other. It’s unthinkable that Regan, whose stock in the eyes of fans is falling so fast, could countenance returning cap in hand to Strachan. But don’t think it won’t have crossed his mind en route to what promises to be an awkward assignment in Switzerland.