The Scottish Football Association has been forced to go back to the drawing board in its search for a new manager after Michael O’Neill rejected its offer to succeed Gordon Strachan in the role.
Stewart Regan, the SFA chief executive, will now return to the list of candidates drawn up in the aftermath of Strachan’s departure in October.
O’Neill’s decision to turn down the four-year contract he would have been given as Scotland manager, opting instead to remain in charge of Northern Ireland where a new six-year deal is on the table for him, is a significant setback for Regan and the sub-committee of the SFA board charged with recruiting Strachan’s replacement.
O’Neill’s decision will leave Regan to wonder if the SFA’s delay in making a move for the Northern Ireland manager cost the governing body its No 1 target. In waiting three months to make its move, the SFA increased the risk of failing to land its catch. Crucially, it allowed the Irish FA to put together a lucrative new contract offer and would also have left O’Neill to wonder just how much the SFA really wanted him.
It’s understood that while the SFA pushed hard to put together an attractive package, it still fell far short of what the IFA offered O’Neill.
The IFA’s deal is worth as much as £750,000 per annum, while the SFA was able to stretch to only around £550,000 but hoped to attract O’Neill with built-in bonus incentives.
Last night, Strachan suggested the SFA’s delay may have played a part in O’Neill’s decision, saying: “Sometimes you get so long to think, there is so many things come into your thinking and you think, well, it seems like a good idea at a time, but the longer you have to think of it, you think maybe it is not such a good idea.”
While bookmakers quickly installed former Scotland manager Alex McLeish and current SFA performance director Malky Mackay as the new favourites for the vacancy, Regan and SFA president Alan McRae will now attend tomorrow’s draw in Lausanne for the inaugural Uefa Nations League tournament without a new national team coach in place. The 48-year-old O’Neill is expected to be part of the Northern Ireland delegation.
The SFA was hopeful it had done enough to tempt O’Neill during three hours of talks with the 48-year-old in Edinburgh, where he lives, last Thursday. But after agonising over the major career decision over the weekend, former Brechin City and Shamrock Rovers boss O’Neill informed Regan yesterday morning that he was staying put.
“Having given the matter a great deal of thought and consideration, I have decided not to take up the opportunity to become the next Scotland national team manager,” said O’Neill in a brief statement.
“It is a huge honour to be offered the position. However, I do not feel that this is the right opportunity for me at this moment in my career.
“I would like to place on record my gratitude to the SFA for the very professional manner in which they conducted negotiations and I would also like to wish them every success for the future.”
While McLeish and Mackay emerged yesterday as the new favourites for the vacancy, Regan and his colleagues will now reconsider their original list of candidates which it is understood includes other non-Scottish coaches.
Former Italy manager Cesare Prandelli, now out of work after being dismissed by Dubai club Al-Nasr last week, was previously reported to have expressed an interest in the Scotland job.
Among the highest profile potential Scottish candidates, both David Moyes and Paul Lambert, pictured, now appear outwith the Scottish FA’s reach
after they both returned to English Premier League management at West Ham United and Stoke City respectively.
Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes, who has turned down moves to Sunderland and Rangers in the past six months, is also high on the bookmakers’ lists but the 46-year-old may feel it is too early in his career for a move into international management.
Time remains on the side of the Scottish FA with the national team not back in action until 23 March when they host Costa Rica in a friendly. Further fixtures against Hungary, Peru and Mexico have also been arranged as preparation for the Nations League which begins in September and will form part of the qualifying process for the 2020 European Championship finals.
“The process of identifying and recruiting a new Scotland national coach remains ongoing,” said Regan in a statement.
“The board of the Scottish FA appointed a sub-committee to oversee the recruitment process, compile a list of suitable candidates and ultimately make a recommendation. As part of that process, and in recognition of his work in taking Northern Ireland to Uefa Euro 2016, Michael O’Neill was identified as an obvious candidate for consideration.
“To that end, we requested permission to speak to Michael from the Irish Football Association, which was accepted. Michael and his advisers met our delegation in Edinburgh on Thursday and discussed all aspects of the role during a three-hour meeting.
“While this was a positive and cordial discussion, we respect Michael’s decision to remain loyal to Northern Ireland, with whom he has enjoyed great success.
“We wish him well in his future endeavours and thank the Irish FA for their professionalism throughout. We now continue our recruitment process from the candidate list established by the selection committee, with a view to giving the new national coach ample time to prepare the squad for the Uefa Nations League.”