Alan Pattullo: Chase for Michael O’Neill could become SFA botch-up

Michael O'Neill has held 'positive talks' with current employers, Northern Ireland. Picture: Getty.
Michael O'Neill has held 'positive talks' with current employers, Northern Ireland. Picture: Getty.
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The feeling of returning to work, perhaps with heavy heart and knowing there’s something major you’ve been putting off which will now need to be tackled, is familiar to us all following the festive period.

So spare a thought for the Scottish Football Association. Consider what’s sitting on top of chief executive Stewart Regan’s in-tray and has been for some time. It’s now 89 days since Regan informed Gordon Strachan by phone there would be no new contract offer forthcoming following Scotland’s failure to reach the World Cup play-offs.

By the time SFA officials congregate in Lausanne on 24 January for the Nations League draw, it will be well over 100 days without a manager. In the absence of games, it’s not a huge problem right now. But this date in Switzerland, two weeks on Wednesday, is the next significant appointment in the diary.

It’s not essential for a manager to be in place then or, indeed, for one to even be there. But it’s surely preferable. As it stands the SFA cannot say who will be representing Scotland at the draw. Will it be Performance Director Malky Mackay, told by Regan on the day of November’s friendly against the Netherlands he wasn’t in line for the post of permanent manager? As it stands, O’Neill, who has recently held what’s described as “positive talks” about a contract extension, will be representing Northern Ireland. Awks, as the kids say.

When O’Neill was last in Switzerland, he was contesting a World Cup play-off with his admirable Northern Ireland side, who were robbed of at least 30 minutes’ extra-time by a terrible refereeing decision in the first leg. Strachan had been let go by Scotland nearly a month earlier.

The SFA’s unwillingness to initiate moving for O’Neill, quickly identified as a leading candidate, was understandable in the days and weeks following Strachan’s departure; they didn’t want to be accused of rocking the Northern Ireland boat at such a crucial juncture.

Why, in any case, would O’Neill consent to speak to them even if the SFA had agreed to pay the £500,000 compensation to trigger permission to hold talks? He had two critical games to focus on.

And what if Northern Ireland qualified? Regan, pictured right, had already covered the SFA’s back for this potential development; he admitted Scotland might be prepared to wait until after this summer’s World Cup to make an appointment, a comment that raised eyebrows at the time. But they didn’t qualify. O’Neill was forced to make that heart-breaking walk across the sodden turf in Basel to comfort his players while wiping tears from his own eyes in the knowledge his mother, Patricia, was gravely ill, and would pass away just days afterwards.

So again, the SFA’s reluctance to make a move then was completely understandable. O’Neill had his own hugely profound grief to process. His agent might have been taking calls but he certainly wasn’t. However, aware a six-year contract was on the table from Northern Ireland, the SFA surely knew they could ill afford delaying making their pitch too long. As a Hampden source conceded yesterday, recruiting O’Neill now hangs “in the balance”.

Understandably, O’Neill has spent a lot of time in his homeland recently. While he might live in Edinburgh, the ties are strong to Northern Ireland. It would only be natural if he feels an even stronger tug on his heartstrings given what he’s recently gone through.

As for Scotland, fulfilling the role of World Cup warm-up opponents for Morocco was mentioned before a draw pitching the African side in with southern European teams Spain and Portugal nixed that idea. Now Scotland might head to Peru. But it’s nothing more concrete than that. Northern Ireland, meanwhile, have already lined up an attractive looking tour to central America to play World Cup qualifiers Panama and Costa Rica.

O’Neill, still contracted to Northern Ireland, would be remiss were he not already pondering who to call up at the start of another new era for the country he’s served so well for the last six years. He has already stressed these games will provide “solid preparation” for upcoming Nations League and European Championship qualifying fixtures.

There is still time to salvage Operation O’Neill if that’s what the SFA wish to do. But the longer their pursuit takes, the more it begins to look like a botched project. Or, in O’Neill’s eyes, the longer it takes, the less it seems as if Scotland really want him.

Perhaps that is the case. Having done little to dampen rumours O’Neill was their preference, perhaps the SFA have now grown cooler on the idea. Money could be the issue. It often is in such circumstances. The SFA are obliged to be careful with their members’ finances.

Sensing they could recruit an experienced candidate such as Alex McLeish for a lot less, the SFA, facing uncertainly over the future of the national stadium, might be recoiling from the pay-out required simply to get O’Neill to Hampden. They might also balk at paying his salary now when they feel they might not have to, with competitive games not due to start until September.

Maybe someone at the SFA is proving resistant to the idea of O’Neill as Scotland manager. Rod Petrie, the SFA president-elect and current vice-president, was Hibernian chairman when the Easter Road club went to the trouble of interviewing O’Neill for several hours in London in 2010. They were seeking a replacement for Colin Calderwood, only to leave O’Neill hanging before turning to Pat Fenlon.

Now there’s the added complication of another vacancy opening up in the English Premier League at Stoke City, the sort of mid-ranking club where O’Neill seems a perfect fit and for whom compensation is a drop in the ocean.

So there are several reasons why it’s come this, to a scramble to convince O’Neill that, really, it’s him the SFA wanted all along. Because 
that’s what it is now, a race against time.