This was not the way it was meant to turn out. The Michael O’Neill sitting in an Edinburgh café two years on from spurning the chance to manage Scotland appears far from crushed by regret.
He almost skips into the appointed meeting place whistling a merry tune. And why not?
The Northern Ireland manager had watched one of his players, Michael Smith, star for Hearts against Rangers the previous day, while receiving news that another, the less reliable Kyle Lafferty, had broken his duck off the bench for his Norwegian side Sarpsborg 08.
“He still has something to offer, no doubt about that,” O’Neill says of Lafferty. “He has not scored for us for two or three years – three years actually.
“He needs to get back scoring again. I would imagine Kyle coming back to Scotland would be an attractive proposition for clubs in January. Whether the finance is there to attract Kyle to do it is another matter.”
Smith, meanwhile, is getting better and better, and his success at centre-half for Hearts hands O’Neill another option. “I have watched him play there in a three and that (against Rangers) was the first time I have seen him playing there with my own eyes as a two. He was excellent.”
O’Neill’s biggest headache prior to the final Euro 2020 qualifying double header against the Netherlands and Germany is who to leave out.
“Players are sending me text messages: ‘look if you need me, I am here, I am fit and ready to come in’, which is nice,” he says.
You imagine it is, with imagine being the operative word if you’re Scottish.
The Tartan Army may once have scoffed at O’Neill’s decision to reject the Scottish Football Association’s advances but now, surely, they see the wisdom in avoiding the process of elimination that is trying to assemble a Scotland squad.
Somehow, almost two years ago, O’Neill remained clear-sighted enough to determine what his next step should be. Days after Northern Ireland had been beaten in gut-wrenching circumstances in a World Cup play-off by Switzerland – the only goal over the two legs was a penalty wrongly awarded after the referee interpreted a shot that hit Corey Evans on the back as handball – O’Neill lost his mother, Patricia, following a long illness. It was a time of tumult and deep, profound grief. Understandably, his ties to Northern Ireland grew stronger than ever. But some still questioned his choice. Northern Ireland’s Fifa ranking took a tumble during a brief period of transition coinciding with their Nations League matches, all of which were lost. Scotland, meanwhile, topped their group under Alex McLeish, who was belatedly brought in after O’Neill confirmed he was staying put.
There were grounds to wonder if that Northern Ireland team had gone as far as they could after qualifying for the last 16 of the Euro 2016 and then coming to within sight of the World Cup finals. Some pondered whether decline had set in. Fortunately, O’Neill is not the type to laugh in your face.
It is good to catch up with him again. He turned 50 during the summer and looks well. He is shortly due to pit his wits once more against Ronald Koeman and then, a few days later, with Joachim Loew, one of the few managers in international football whose reign exceeds O’Neill’s near eight years and 68 games in charge of Northern Ireland (Austin MacPhee, his trusted assistant, recently passed the 50-game mark).
McLeish lasted just 12 matches. O’Neill feels no schadenfreude at what unfolded. “I don’t look at it and say: ‘I dodged a bullet there’,” he says. “I don’t look at it like that at all.”
For one thing, he’d like to think he would have been able to alter Scotland’s current course. If there’s sweat on his brow it’s not from relief at sidestepping a car crash; rather, it’s because he is preparing for a couple of high-intensity, high stakes’ matches next month against two of the best sides in the world.
Scotland, in contrast, face two dead rubbers with Cyprus and Kazakhstan. Still searching for a No 9 worthy of the name and currently pinning hopes on a former England defender switching allegiance from his current base in Turkey, resources are as thin as perhaps O’Neill suspected was the case when he eventually met with SFA officials and then politely turned down their advances.
“I did not stay away from the Scotland job on that basis,” says O’Neill, with reference to Scotland’s evident squad shortcomings. “There were numerous factors. I suppose the biggest factor for me was flexibility. The IFA (Irish Football Association) gave me a fantastic contract but they also gave me flexibility. I have done the time to be able to say, for example, if another job opportunity at a club came up that I can consider it and look at it. The SFA could not give me a contract like that, I totally understood it. The contract was not as flexible, which was totally understandable. But if you want that level of inflexibility then it comes at a price. That was part of the issue as well.
“I sometimes laugh when I hear people say I led the SFA a merry dance,” he adds. “I did not do anything. I was under contract! I just sat there. At the end of the day it took the SFA three months just to agree to speak to me. That was nothing to do with me. I was in the middle of preparing for a World Cup play-off. And I still had two years left of my contract. I actually don’t know where that comes from.
“I did not say anything. I didn’t answer questions on it. Plus, there was a person in the job who I had massive respect for – Gordon (Strachan).”
He’s still aghast at the criticism former SFA chief executive Stewart Regan received. Not just for his supposedly botched approach for the Northern Ireland manager – there was a long delay before a compensation figure between the associations was agreed – but O’Neill contends Regan did everything in his power to persuade him. There was also the tour to Mexico and Peru arranged prior to McLeish’s appointment.
“I felt like saying, ‘where do you want them to go?’ Alex is going out there to play two teams going to the World Cup. When will Scottish players get to play in South America?”
His view is undoubtedly shaped by Northern Ireland’s tour to play Chile and Uruguay before the 2014 World Cup which helped spark their rebirth following O’Neill’s long and often difficult settling-in process. He knows what it’s like to feel like you are going backwards. Sometimes some hurt is necessary in order to move forward.
He has spoken to current incumbent Steve Clarke and offered his support. They often bump into one another at games in England and Scotland. Kevin McAllister is a friend they have in common – “Crunchie” was a team-mate of Clarke’s at Chelsea and then went on to play with O’Neill at Hibs, as well as assisting him at Brechin City.
“People need to be realistic – no one is going to come in and suddenly Scotland are going to be this free-flowing team,” he says. “It is not going to happen like that.
“There were a lot of challenges when I started [with Northern Ireland] – although people rarely quote statistics that are accurate. They just say we did not win for 18 games. That is not entirely true. We had a lot of draws in there. We were not able to play any home friendly because of the stadium (renovation) and we actually played a lot better than results showed.
“When people trot out win percentages, you have to take friendly games out of it. You rarely have your strongest team. We played in Panama and Costa Rica last summer, two teams going to the World Cup, but we had a relatively young and inexperienced squad there. It was not about winning those games, it was about the experience they were getting.”
According to O’Neill, this is the first objective – ensuring players associate international football with good times. “Hopefully this generation under Steve will have more pleasant experiences and then the job is a lot more enjoyable and the players enjoy the experience of coming away,” he says.
“It takes a bit of time to create – it took us about two years to do that really. We did not have the players to be able to allow players to retire. I coaxed them out of retirement! There is that. We have a situation now where availability is about 100 per cent. Some of the Scottish players… I mean, I look at players like Matt Ritchie, why is he not playing?”
It’s a good question which has been lent topicality, too, by Robert Snodgrass’ recent decision to call time on his international playing days. O’Neill’s time in office has been notable for players coming out of retirement. Only one, Oliver Norwood, has taken a seemingly premature decision to walk away. Meanwhile, the core of a good side is unavailable to Clarke.
“The Snodgrass one was interesting,” says O’Neill. “I always felt Scotland needed him available.
“I remember him actually because he played against me when he was on loan at Stirling and I was manager at Brechin. He missed a penalty – he hit a really bad penalty against us. He was only a kid, like. But he really caught my eye.”
Scotland’s failure to land O’Neill has been compounded by letting his Edinburgh-born eldest daughter slip through their fingers. Erin recently made her competitive debut for the Northern Ireland at the European Women’s Under 17 championship tournament at Oriam earlier this month – including a 4-1 defeat to Scotland.
She has just made the move from Hibs, her father’s old club, to Hearts Ladies. She plays right back or – as her father sometimes did – right midfield.
“She has been in the Scottish system, but they did not select her for the tournament. Northern Ireland have been beating her door down, so she went and played there and enjoyed it. She played every minute of every game. It’s a big pitch so she was knackered!”
To lose one O’Neill is misfortunate, to lose two begins to look a lot like carelessness.
When O’Neill arrived at Dundee United in August 1989, among the normal belongings of a young man arriving in a strange place to play football – boots, sports kit, washbag – was something that marked him as different, or at least different to Duncan Ferguson’s view of what a young footballer with the world at his feet should be carting into his lodgings.
He had a big red bin full of pencils, rulers and protractors. He was, after all, planning to study for his Maths A level. Ferguson looked at the items, looked again at O’Neill. The look he flashed him was the 1980s version of WTF?
Well, O’Neill needs that red stationery bin again. He has just started the second year of a masters degree in sports directorship at Salford University. In further evidence he may well be among the sanest men in an increasingly insane football world, he’s gone back to school in order to better himself. He agrees he’s approaching another potential fork in the road but he’s still content where he is having been given more and more responsibility by the IFA.
“Possibly if I remain as an international manager into double digits years-wise, maybe my role is more suited as a sporting director-type role, which does interest me,” he says.
“When you are an international manager you do a lot of other stuff; you don’t just pick the team. The most important thing I am interested in with Northern Ireland is how you build the pathway for the younger players.”
On the pitch, possibilities abound. Northern Ireland need to win against both Holland and Germany to qualify automatically for Euro 2020 while ensuring they come out better in the head-to-head. After taking a 75th-minute lead through Josh Magennis in Rotterdam just over a fortnight ago, Northern Ireland conceded twice in the dying moments to lose 3-1. A 1-1 draw would have meant playing for a place at the finals in the return match in Belfast.
No wonder O’Neill was spotted kicking a bottle in rage on the touchline. He and his side have come a long way since losing 3-2 to Luxembourg early in his tenure.
Scotland, who are at least safe in the knowledge they have a play-off place, can’t cock a snook at Northern Ireland; due to the number of teams above them in Nations League standings who have already qualified for the finals or are on course to do so, O’Neill’s side will almost certainly be one if they don’t finish in the top two places in their group.
“There is a level of optimism we won’t have to go back to where we once were,” says O’Neill. “There is always a tendency to have a dip at some point. How are we going to replace someone like Steven Davis when that time comes, and Jonny Evans? But players come along.
“People talk a lot about Billy Gilmour, and rightly so – he is an excellent player. But our best player at that age group is Ethan Galbraith at Man Utd, and we gave him a debut in September. We are pushing players through. Also, Alfie McAlmont at Leeds, he has already made his senior international debut. We have to push in players quicker.
“We cannot wait around for them to play 50 games for their club. Jonny Evans played for Northern Ireland before he played for Man United.”
O’Neill is still brimming with ideas. His edges are in no way blunted by the length of service. He is petitioning Northern Ireland League officials to implement such changes as a shift to a summer season while stipulating two Under 21 players must feature in starting XIs.
Perhaps this could form the basis of the 12,000 word thesis he must deliver by September next year.
“Sometimes I am rushing home after international games to finish course work,” he says. Scotland’s loss is undoubtedly Northern Ireland’s continued gain.