Michael O’Neill could be perfect candidate for Scotland

Northern Ireland coach Michael O'Neill gestures on the sideline during the World Cup Group C qualifier against Germany. Picture: Martin Meissner/AP
Northern Ireland coach Michael O'Neill gestures on the sideline during the World Cup Group C qualifier against Germany. Picture: Martin Meissner/AP
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If, as some claimed even before the resounding 3-0 defeat by Slovakia, Gordon Strachan doesn’t want to be manager of Scotland any longer, then who is next in line?

Gauging from his comments after the game, and factoring in the practical difficulties involved in becoming suddenly manager-less just over three weeks before a first competitive meeting with England since 1999, it seems reasonable to presume Strachan will continue in his role – for now.

But whether he is still manager by the time he turns 60 in February is far from certain. He kept his thoughts on the subject hidden in the aftermath of Tuesday’s defeat, Scotland’s worst competitive reversal for seven years. Instead he tried to look forward, describing next month’s appointment with England as “another opportunity to get three points”.

After that Wembley visit, Scotland will not re-engage with competitive action until a home qualifier with Slovenia at the end of March.

Perhaps it’s also worth noting Northern Ireland’s forthcoming fixture list – they have a qualifier against Azerbaijan on the same night as Scotland meet England and then face a friendly four days later v Croatia.

Like Scotland, their next fixture after that is not until the end of March; plenty of time to sound out Michael O’Neill about transferring from Northern Ireland to Scotland, where he still lives.

O’Neill seems a perfect candidate if what Scotland need is a manager skilled at getting the best out of a limited pool of players. If Strachan does decide to step aside, one of his old players from their time together at Coventry City is surely an attractive, if not leading, candidate. More so since Austin MacPhee, one of O’Neill’s trusted sidekicks, is a proud Scot who is also based in Scotland – in his case, Fife. It’s not fanciful to propose they might be interested having taken Northern Ireland as far as they have.

A source at the Scottish Football Association yesterday said there are set to be “discussions” with Strachan about his future. But when is dependent on a manager described as “wounded”.

The source added: “It’s like deciding when’s the best time to approach a widow at a wake”. Contrary to the perception of Strachan as flippant, slightly detached, it’s abundantly clear he’s hurting.

A poor result at Wembley would likely give the SFA hierarchy food for thought. But more likely to impact on Strachan’s position are his own feelings. Strachan doesn’t do sackings – he likes to leave of his accord.

He was already considering walking away following the last failed attempt to qualify, persuaded against it by the backing of fans after the 6-0 win over Gibraltar and following discussions with those closest to him.

He walked away from Middlesbrough when the situation became uncomfortable for him and could do so again if defeat to England left Scotland on four points from a possible 12 after the first four fixtures. They had been looking for six, at least.

Qualification is still possible, of course. But spurning opportunities to gather points this early in a campaign is rarely a recipe for success, something Scotland know to their cost.

Had they beaten Slovakia rather than slumped to such a disappointing defeat, then Strachan’s Scotland would be marching with renewed purpose towards Wembley on 11 November, with the chance to consolidate their position as group leaders.

But they aren’t and Strachan must shoulder a lot of the responsibility. He was interested only in defending his players, and looking after their welfare, on Tuesday night. It’s an admirable trait. But such an attempt to control the debate is also a classic deflection tactic for those running out of ideas and possibly answers.

Beneath the bright lights in the Stadion Antona Malatinskeho press room, Strachan, perhaps for the first time in his near-four year reign (he stayed only four years at Celtic before deciding he’d taken them as 
far as he could), looked 
diminished, beaten. It wasn’t hard to sympathise. The players aren’t quite good enough, that’s clear; three quarters of the back four picked for the last two fixtures were far below the quality required. Right-back Callum Paterson has time on his side. But centre back Grant Hanley is in and out of the side at Newcastle United and his partner Russell Martin is proving too slow for this level.

But there are grounds for wondering whether Strachan really is managing to get the best out of players after a period when he seemed expert at drawing a positive reaction. The banishment of Oliver Burke, an exciting if admittedly raw prospect, seems particularly perplexing. To go from being a starter against Malta and then Lithuania to being excluded from the 23 players stripped for action on Tuesday merited much shaking of heads in Slovakia – and at home.

Strachan’s explanation – “to protect him” – was also unsatisfactory. It is understood there are concerns within the coaching staff over his aptitude for tracking back.

But still, it seemed unduly
harsh to make the 19 year-old, pictured left, feel such rejection; a place among the substitutes should have been found for him at the expense of someone else.

Burke had been beginning to get joy on the right against Lithuania on Saturday before he was replaced. Scotland conceded around a minute later and then, with Matt Ritchie swapping to the right-hand side to replace Burke in Trnava, lost three unanswered goals in Slovakia.

What the response is now will be interesting – and potentially crucial for Scotland’s long-term prospects. Sadly for those of us cheered by his decision late last year to carry on, Strachan is beginning to become a lame duck.