SFA’s dithering runs risk of missing out on Michael O’Neill

Michael O'Neill ends the year in charge of Northern Ireland. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS
Michael O'Neill ends the year in charge of Northern Ireland. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS
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It cannot have provided Stewart Regan with much seasonal cheer to see Michael O’Neill creeping up the betting odds listings as another English Premier League managerial post became available late on Wednesday evening.

From the outside, it looks as though the chief executive of the Scottish Football Association is employing a risky strategy. The long game is a strange game to be playing when it’s well into sacking season in the EPL.

O’Neill, it’s understood, was pipped to the post by Alan Pardew for the West Bromwich Albion managerial vacancy last month with the shortlist having been whittled down to two names. It was the wrong time for O’Neill, in truth. He was still processing the disappointment after Northern Ireland were knocked out the World Cup play-offs by Switzerland on the back of a penalty that should never have been. But affecting him far more profoundly than that was the recent death of his mother, Patricia.

It’s an especially unsettling time for O’Neill. But it’s not of his making. He’s earning sympathy for having plenty to consider over Christmas. But really, is there so much? How can he consider a Scotland job that hasn’t been offered to him? Contrary to stories last month, the SFA is yet to make an official approach.

He will begin the new year as the manager of Northern Ireland. He will be plotting their, and not Scotland’s, next 12 months while continuing to mull over the new six-year contract he has been offered by the Irish Football Association, who seem especially keen not to lose O’Neill to Scotland – and have the funds to believe they may not have to.

Their cause it seems is being further helped by the SFA’s dithering. It’s now two months and ten days since Gordon Strachan was told his contract with Scotland was not being renewed. It’s long enough for Strachan to feel satisfied there is now sufficient distance between him and that dismal last hurrah, a 2-2 draw in Slovenia, to consent to the inevitable First Interview, which he granted two tabloid newspapers earlier this week.

Even Brexit negotiators are looking to Hampden Park and wondering what’s taking so long? There’s having the luxury of time, which the SFA have had up to a point, and there’s being complacent.

Regan, pictured, is heading a sub-committee of SFA board directors tasked with identifying Strachan’s replacement. It’s an open secret O’Neill is their No 1 target. Regan suggested they’d wait until after the World Cup if it meant getting the right man. But Northern Ireland won’t be in Russia so there’s no need for these bouts of anxiety as potential opportunities emerge elsewhere for O’Neill to consider.

The Northern Ireland manager was featuring high in the bookies’ lists of potential replacements soon after news broke that Paul Clement had been ditched by Swansea. It’s what tends to happen when you’ve steered a country with limited resources up to 20th place from 133 in the Fifa rankings. It’s what happens when you’ve taken them to the knock-out stage of a major tournament and then been cruelly denied the chance to progress to a World Cup finals by a catastrophically poor refereeing decision.

Few clubs contemplating a change of manager will not be minded to take a look at O’Neill. Many English – and Welsh – ones, including those in the English Championship, will be able to offer more lucrative terms than the SFA.

While much of what Strachan revealed in those aforementioned interviews saw him hoist with his own petard, there were enough glimpses into life as a Scotland manager to justify some concerns about how the SFA operate. Some of his complaints, specifically about lack of support and being dismissed via a phone call, seemed justified.

Strachan’s return to the public eye was unhelpfully timed as far as the SFA is concerned. O’Neill was likely reading these pieces at home in Edinburgh and wondering not only why it has taken the SFA so long to even seek permission to talk to him, but also if working for such an operation is really so attractive in any case.

As for the blithe assumption O’Neill would swap an ageing Northern Ireland side for Scotland’s richer talent pool, it should be noted that just three Scots started EPL games last weekend.

WBA, meanwhile, took no time at all to contact the IFA and gain permission to open talks with O’Neill last month. They quickly agreed to pay the compensation fee – which is set at a higher figure for clubs than if another country’s football association wishes to begin negotiations with O’Neill. But even then Scotland will be due to pay around £500,000. Too rich for the SFA? Their lack 
of action thus far suggests it might be so.

There’s talk of seeking outside investment, in much the same way as Republic of Ireland funded Giovanni Trapattoni, with a portion of his annual salary being paid by an Irish businessman. It’s easy to see why O’Neill might consider this an unwelcome scenario.

He might argue he would feel beholden enough to an expectant nation without the knowledge he is the part property of a third party. Whatever is happening, or indeed is not happening, the delay is giving critics every excuse to resuscitate those old sideswipes about 
“bungling SFA blazers”.