What is the Scottish Football Association to make of Michael O’Neill’s recent trip to China? The leading candidate for the vacant Scotland post spent last weekend in the Far East on a fact-finding trip organised long before he emerged as favourite to succeed Gordon Strachan.
When O’Neill was introduced to his hosts in China it was as “manager of Northern Ireland”, understandably so since that is what he remains – for now. He was accompanied there by Austin MacPhee, who is, also for now, one of O’Neill’s assistants at Northern Ireland as well as being assistant manager of Hearts. What were the pair discussing during the 12-hour flight there and back, and over two days there, visiting Chinese Super League club Shanghai Greenland Shenhua?
Crucially MacPhee is a Scot and someone O’Neill is certain to insist remains by his side should be accept Scotland’s advances.
What was being weighed up over a beer as two friends who have already gone through so much together scanned the Shanghai skyline from their hotel bar at night? The SFA can relax in one respect at least. While O’Neill has been linked to a host of vacant posts, including Stoke City, Marcello Lippi recently signed a new contract to continue as manager of China.
O’Neill has returned with a lot to digest. He is aware Scotland are prepared to make him their highest-paid manager ever. But he is also alert – because it’s there, in black and white, on the table in front of him – to the fact Northern Ireland have offered a new contract that would elevate him to the status of second-highest paid international manager in the British Isles after Gareth Southgate. Six years, on a reputed £750,000 per annum, who wouldn’t be swayed?
He is careful, pragmatic and as you would expect of someone who is a trained financial advisor, knows his own worth. Northern Ireland have now set the value if money is all it’s about, which you imagine, with O’Neill, it isn’t.
It’s a very attractive offer from a country to which he’s already deeply attached. His heartstrings will feel a tug no matter how much the purse strings are loosened.
There’s an airport already named after George Best but you wonder what might happen were O’Neill to lead Northern Ireland to a second successive Euro finals in 2020? He has already led them to the World Cup play-offs in what was an impressive encore after reaching the knockout stage of Euro 2016.
So there’s much to ponder. Even now, back home in Edinburgh, O’Neill must be besieged by warring thoughts. What’s a man to do?
Not that he’s one to be paralysed by indecision. He shocked supporters when reacting to the opening defeat to Poland at Euro 2016 by changing half his outfield players, including talisman Kyle Lafferty, for the win over Ukraine in the next game. He’s clear sighted and unafraid to take risks.
If ambition were the only criteria, then Scotland, with all the possibilities this role entails, would seem the obvious choice between the two. There is vast potential for the reverence in which he is already held in Northern Ireland to be replicated in Scotland should he achieve what’s already been done with his homeland and reach a major finals. Were this to happen, it’s understood O’Neill would also be handsomely rewarded in terms of bonuses on top of around £500,000 a year basic salary, more than Strachan was paid.
The SFA is having to tread cannily as it seeks to disguise its keenness for fear of looking foolish if its advances are rejected by O’Neill, who has already held what’s been described as “positive talks” with the Irish Football Association (IFA) over a new deal.
The SFA will claim it has pushed the boat out as far as it can financially amid additional uncertainty over the future of Hampden Park.
Stewart Regan, the SFA chief executive, and Patrick Nelson, his opposite number at the IFA, get on well. So there’s likely to have already been some dialogue, unofficially at least. As for O’Neill, he’s mentioned before that his two daughters, Erin and Olivia, regard themselves as Scottish. He and wife Bronagh are based in Edinburgh, the city O’Neill has called home for most of the time since signing for Hibs from Dundee United in 1993.
It’s possible to forget just how far O’Neill has come in a relatively short space of time. Ten years ago this weekend he was in charge of Brechin City as they slid to a 1-0 home defeat to Cowdenbeath. But this was a rare misstep at Glebe Park, where he began to learn his managerial craft.
Shamrock Rovers came next, the team he led into the Europa League group stage while winning back-to-back league titles. It’s interesting to note that, even when the IFA came calling as they looked for a successor to Nigel Worthington, and O’Neill’s contract was expiring at Shamrock Rovers, it wasn’t a case of them simply clicking their fingers. There were weeks of speculation as O’Neill weighed his options up.
If O’Neill is accused of being hard to get he would argue he’s worth it. At least we can be fairly sure of one thing. O’Neill will make sure something is resolved by 24 January, when the Nations League draw is scheduled to take place in Lausanne. He won’t want to spend his time there being badgered by reporters from Scotland, Northern Ireland and elsewhere seeking thoughts on his future, which would undoubtedly happen were it still uncertain by then. O’Neill is committed to making sure it isn’t.