While the Scottish Football Association waits for Gordon Strachan to decide if he can demonstrate why he should remain Scotland manager or, probably more crucially, if he even wants to, they would be remiss not to consider other options.
One plan could be to attend a near sold-out Windsor Park tomorrow night for Northern Ireland’s friendly with Croatia. If a delegation from Hampden’s fifth floor did head to a transformed Belfast it wouldn’t take long to notice the impact a Scots-based manager and his Scottish assistant are having on football fortunes in the province.
Not that anyone should pay too much attention to this particular result. Northern Ireland, who haven’t lost at home for more than three years, have injury worries and are missing Jonny Evans, Jamie Ward, Stuart Dallas, Chris Brunt and Michael McGovern. Their No 2 goalkeeper, St Johnstone’s Alan Mannus, will be in goal against a side ranked 16 in the world.
But whatever the outcome tomorrow night, Northern Ireland’s work for this year has already been done – and what a year it’s been. A team made up mostly of Scottish Premiership, English Championship and League One players reached the last 16 of Euro 2016 and created a record unbeaten run of 12 matches.
Northern Ireland have also allayed fears they’d gone as far as they could hope under their Edinburgh-based manager Michael O’Neill and that they’d lose both him and momentum in the tournament’s aftermath.
But O’Neill is still there. As is his assistant Austin MacPhee, the Fifer who still lives outside St Andrews. And the alchemy is still proving effective. Northern Ireland will end a remarkable year in a World Cup play-off place after Friday night’s 4-0 win over Robert Prosinecki’s previously unbeaten Azerbaijan.
Is theirs a less difficult group than Scotland’s? Including as it does Germany and Czech Republic, possibly not. In any case, Northern Ireland have perfected the art of winning when it seems they have no right to. Remarkably, Friday’s 4-0 success was achieved while having only 38 per cent possession (Scotland had 32 per cent possession and duly lost 3-0 to England on the same night).
Three of the four goals were from set-pieces, as were 11 out of the 16 scored on the way to the finals in France, when Northern Ireland qualified as group winners.
Not everyone was impressed by even this feat. Some questioned the quality of a group that was made up by Romania, Greece, Hungary, Finland and the Faroe Isles, particularly when compared to Scotland’s, which had Germany, the freshly crowned world champions, Poland, Republic of Ireland, Georgia and Gibraltar, and saw Strachan’s side finish fourth.
But trashing this theory is the fact the total world ranking standings of those teams making up Northern Ireland’s group was 275 compared to Scotland’s far lower quality of 455. Not everyone places great store in Fifa’s world ranking system. So how about Champions League players? Scotland’s group had more, surely? No, just 17 in Group D, compared to 27 in Northern Ireland’s Group F. Whatever way you look at it, O’Neill, MacPhee and the Stirling-based warhorse Jimmy Nicholl, who is also on the backroom staff, have demonstrated their talent for making the most of limited – more limited than Scotland’s, certainly – resources.
O’Neill’s interest was piqued by a long-haired scout in his early 30s diligently taking notes at a game at Celtic Park a few years ago.
MacPhee was on the backroom staff at St Mirren at the time. Other than watching O’Neill from the terraces at Tannadice while growing up, he had no relationship to speak of with the former Dundee United striker, who is ten years older. This was no ‘job-for-the-boys’ appointment. But how it’s paying off.
After MacPhee left St Mirren as Tommy Craig began his ill-starred managerial reign, O’Neill got in touch and invited him to join his staff. MacPhee divides his time at Northern Ireland with overseeing an innovative football academy in Fife that has sent players to train with Barcelona and AS Roma – one graduate, Louis Appere, was on the bench for the first time for Dundee United against Dunfermline on Saturday.
This shouldn’t be news to Stewart Regan, pictured, who has long taken interest in MacPhee’s approach to developing youth footballers. The SFA chief executive visited AMsoccer, based in Cupar, for the first time four years ago.
Regan’s awareness of MacPhee’s work at all levels is one reason why the 37-year-old, who played briefly for Forfar Athletic before embarking on a nomadic career abroad, will shortly deliver a presentation in front of SFA board members, part of the interview process for the vacant post of performance director.
MacPhee is vying with Malky Mackay, John Collins, former Celtic chief scout John Park and Alan Irvine, who was once in charge of the Everton youth academy.
But one of the key differences with his fellow candidates is MacPhee’s contention that being charged with developing a strategy to develop young footballers should not mean being isolated from the national team’s current performances. There’s no point accepting accountability without responsibility, hence MacPhee’s belief the performance director should have access to all areas– including the men’s senior team.
It’s an interesting viewpoint in terms of the current uncertainty regarding Strachan’s position. It’s one shared also by Germany – Thomas Schneider, the assistant manager to Joachim Low, is also performance director at the DFB (German Football Association).
When MacPhee stands in front of messrs Regan, president Alan McRae and other SFA board members next week, Strachan may already have exited.
The national team manager’s post could be vacant along with the performance director position, with MacPhee representing a natural conduit to O’Neill, who would, it’s understood, at least entertain switching from Northern Ireland to Scotland at a time when his currency is so high, and despite links to jobs in England.
O’Neill might well consider Northern Ireland’s current success story to be impossible to maintain, even if the evidence is to the contrary right now.
Scottish football, for all its ills, does still provide attractions that Northern Ireland lack: a full-time top tier, superior infrastructure – Northern Ireland often have to travel to Dublin for adequate training pitches – and a new national sports centre at the Oriam complex at Riccarton, where O’Neill drove the short distance from his Edinburgh home to watch Northern Ireland Under 16s lose 2-0 to Scotland Under 16s only last month.