How can he accept something that hasn’t been offered? That was Michael O’Neill’s understandable response to those who wondered, prior to Christmas and as the days turned into weeks since Northern Ireland’s World Cup elimination, why he wasn’t already installed as Scotland manager.
Now the post has been offered and the terms outlined, it’s been refused. Are we to conclude that when this approach finally came, it was too late? Or not lucrative enough for O’Neill to feel he could afford to walk away from a contract offer from his present employers guaranteeing him millions of pounds. This was the package the Irish FA (IFA) was able to put together while others waited to make their move.
Put yourself in O’Neill’s shoes. Having reached the knock-out stage of Euro 2016 with your homeland and followed this up by reaching the World Cup play-offs would you then move to another country for lower wages?
O’Neill’s statement yesterday was respectful in tone. He thanked the SFA for their interest and described the manner in which officials conducted negotiations, with both parties finally meeting in Edinburgh last Thursday, as “very professional”. O’Neill will now, presumably, sign the new six-year contract that the IFA left on the table for him while suitors, including the SFA, hovered.
At least the SFA was not pretending he wasn’t the premier candidate, or that the job, in retrospect, was clearly too big for him and carried “concomitant risk”. A statement released from Hampden Park in response to O’Neill’s was similarly gracious. But are Stewart Regan, the SFA chief executive, and Co now paying for their initial hesitation late last year?
It was, in truth, a difficult time. This, at least, wasn’t the SFA’s fault. O’Neill’s mother Patricia passed away in Co. Antrim in late November. Such a recent and profound bereavement meant they were right to give O’Neill some time and space to process his grief and recover from the emotional turmoil of watching his team ousted from the World Cup play-offs on the back of a terrible refereeing error.
Remember how Scots felt after Alan Hutton was barged off the ball by Giorgio Chiellini and yet was penalised with a free-kick from which Italy scored the winning goal to extinguish Scotland’s qualifying hopes for Euro 2008? Therapists are still coining it in courtesy of tormented Tartan Army members.
But while all the dust was settling, there’s no doubt O’Neill was left frustrated as he fielded questions about his future amid little or no proactive action from the SFA. Simply watching an interview he gave in Northern Ireland ten days before Christmas provided the first warning that things were already turning tricky for the SFA. O’Neill appeared slightly agitated. He stressed his focus was on the Northern Ireland job amid all the media reports concerning his future. The speculation wasn’t, he noted, being driven by him.
He even mentioned he was in talks to extend his contract with the IFA. It emerged they were prepared to pay O’Neill around £700,000-£750,000 a year. These were figures the SFA couldn’t hope to equal. The warning bells were ringing louder. There was talk of seeking outside investment. It’s understood O’Neill was not keen to work under these conditions – it’s stressful enough to feel you are answerable to a nation without also being beholden to a third party paymaster.
While acknowledging he had heard the SFA wanted to speak to him, he insisted there had been no discussions with the Scots or any other national team. “This is a job that’s important to me, I have worked very hard at it,” he said back in December. “And it’s not a job I am going to leave very easily.”
It turns out he hasn’t. Not yet, at least. Not for Scotland, anyway. It’s deflating to be reminded just how far Scotland have fallen – or at least how mediocre are the team’s fortunes compared with Northern Ireland. Prospects might be slightly brighter now but seeing Gordon Strachan’s fate after finishing third in a qualifying group on goal difference can’t have instilled O’Neill with confidence about his own long-term future should he fail to lead Scotland to Euro 2020. After all, Regan has already stated it’s “unthinkable” for Scotland to fail to qualify for a tournament being partly hosted in Glasgow.
The SFA might have hoped Austin MacPhee, O’Neill’s Fife-raised assistant, could whisper pertinent factors in their target’s ear, such as how moving to Scotland might be regarded as the more ambitious, if not initially lucrative, choice. Hearts assistant manager MacPhee is based in Scotland as well. While committed to O’Neill, he may have preferred the switch to the Scotland national team – or at least sensed how difficult it could prove to progress with Northern Ireland following so much over-achievement.
But then O’Neill might not necessarily agree. In fact, clearly he doesn’t. Why should he? He flies to Lausanne today knowing Northern Ireland are in a higher tier than Scotland for the Nations League draw. It means more attractive games. There’s a chance Northern Ireland can draw Republic of Ireland and Wales, both derby clashes and, crucially, both they will regard as very winnable.
As for the presumption, in Scotland at least, that there’s a deeper well of talent to call on as manager of Scotland, the evidence isn’t always persuasive. Scots are hardly clogging up teamlines in the English top flight.
O’Neill was clearly already swithering about taking on such a high-profile appointment in the country where he lives when mentioning a few months ago that he enjoyed the relative anonymity he can count on in Edinburgh. He knew he would become public property were he to become Scotland manager.
Since he has been a regular feature on the back page of most Scottish newspapers for the best part of three months, it’s unlikely he can continue to operate in the shadows, even in Edinburgh. But the attention won’t be as obtrusive as it would prove were he in charge of Scotland’s fortunes.
Maybe O’Neill can now expect the odd comment along the lines of “there’s yer man who turned down Scotland” while walking down the street. The worry for Scotland – and Regan – is there are no obvious alternative candidates in view behind him.