Is Michael O'Neill the man to lead Scotland to a major tournament?

The rumoured No.1 choice to replace Gordon Strachan as national team boss became the clear favourite after it emerged the Scottish FA had approached their Northern Irish counterparts to permission to speak with manager Michael O'Neill. The 48-year-old is the obvious candidate to take over, but is he the right man for the job?
Michael O'Neill walks off the field after Northern Ireland's exit from the World Cup play-offs. Picture: GettyMichael O'Neill walks off the field after Northern Ireland's exit from the World Cup play-offs. Picture: Getty
Michael O'Neill walks off the field after Northern Ireland's exit from the World Cup play-offs. Picture: Getty
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In the days of 24-hour news cycles and social media providing a platform for those who only wish to shout louder than others, there are few “hot takes” which still stir surprise in your average Twitter veteran. However, one exception came in the form of a comparison between Gordon Strachan and Michael O’Neill. Both had missed out on the World Cup in Russia, so why would the SFA swap one failure for the next, asked one Scottish football onlooker.

Talk about a glaring lack of context. Not only does Scotland have a population three times the size of their near neighbours, it also has a full-time professional league. And, not to put too fine a point on it because Scottish football has been in the doldrums for what’s becoming a similarly long stretch, O’Neill completely reinvigorated a football nation which hadn’t seriously competed on the international stage in a long, long time.

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They’ve won 12 games in their previous two qualifying campaigns, which is nearly as much as the previous four combined. Even then, that includes the Euro 2008 campaign where, like Scotland, they came third in a tough group, winning six games. Take that out and you’re looking at 12 wins across six campaigns stretching back to the qualifiers for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, with the nation regularly finishing in the bottom two.

Doing it once can be considered lucky: lightning in a bottle, an easy group etc. Doing it twice in consecutive campaigns, even if they fell just short at the final hurdle on this occasion - one hurdle further than Scotland, it should be noted - shows it’s much more than just good fortune. With the exception of Iceland, it’s hard to think of a European country overachieving as much on the international stage as Northern Ireland over the last couple of years, and a massive amount of credit belongs to the manager.

It’s not like O’Neill had all that much to work with. The squad for the double-header against Switzerland had only four players from the English Premier League. Furthermore, he’s regularly called up players from the likes of Kilmarnock, Ross County and St Johnstone. No offence to those clubs, but we all remember how reticent Scotland’s previous manager was at utilising Scottish Premiership talent outside the Edinburgh or Glasgow clubs, viewing them as a standard beneath what was required.

On paper the Scottish national team squad is stronger, but they are not blessed with an abundance of players at the top level of football, which is why O’Neill stands out as a candidate. He’s overachieved on the international stage before and the Scottish FA hope he’ll do so again.

Living in Scotland and having called up so many Scottish Premiership stars, he’s already got strong knowledge of the game in this country. He may not be Scottish himself, an odd demand sometimes placed by supporters or members of the media, but he does have ties with the nation running back to the late 80s having played for Dundee United, Hibs, Aberdeen and St Johnstone, Clydebank and Ayr United during his career. Then there’s his humble beginnings in management with Brechin City.

Scottish ties, career on the rise, experience at the international level: he ticks a lot of boxes. Yet there are still those who cannot allow themselves to be enthused by the SFA’s hunt for his signature.

Perhaps that’s down to something else which speaks to the culture of today. Scotland and O’Neill have been talked in the same circles for quite some time, at least within fans groups and radio broadcasts pontificating over who the next manager will be. After a while the obvious candidate becomes the boring candidate, even on a subconscious level.

There’s also the manner in which the SFA appear to be going about things, at least on the surface, which would rightly cause some alarm. O’Neill should not be the only manager they speak to. They should do the kind of due diligence required as they would if there were no standout candidate. Instead, their immediate and aggressive pursuit in the wake of Northern Ireland’s exit, having stayed relatively quiet since Strachan’s sacking, would indicate they have only eyes for one man.

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Like any manager entering a new job, there are a few potential red flags to consider, and that’s without going into his prosecution for drink driving. This made only a small ripple among the Scottish press when it was first reported. Similar recklessness as Scotland head coach would illicit greater outcry.

Then there’s the transition between the team he’s leaving behind and the one he’ll be taking over. This writer won’t profess to know the ins and outs of how O’Neill sets out his side at present, but onlookers have always pointed to their strength at the centre-back position as a reason for their success. While it’s too simplistic to credit the strength of the central defenders for a team’s overall ability to defend, you can’t deny it certainly helps. And, as we all know, if there’s one position Scotland are currently struggling to fill at the moment it’s centre-half. Then there’s personalities within the squad to consider. Football history is littered with sure-fire managerial hires who’ve been unable to mesh with their inherited group of players.

There’s also the size of the job he’s undertaking. It would be fair to say that being manager of Northern Ireland does not come with the same pressures of taking on the role in Scotland. The ten-game winless streak which started O’Neill’s career over the Irish Sea would not be tolerated here. There’s also the tremendous change to his everyday life. At present he can take a trip into the city centre of Edinburgh from his home on the outskirts and nobody would look twice. That won’t last if he becomes Scotland boss, and it certainly won’t be a pleasant experience if the team begin losing.

Like everything, luck will play its part as well. It would be mean-spirited to attribute Northern Ireland’s heroic 2016 European Championship qualification to an easy draw, but we can’t deny that getting Greece and Hungary from the top two pots was a welcomed hand dealt. Momentum plays a significant role in any sporting context, and had they been given Germany and Belgium, for example, would we be here right now, wondering about O’Neill’s suitability as Scotland boss? Probably not.

If he takes the Scotland job he’ll need to hope his luck doesn’t run out and he isn’t handed a group of death as the country bids to reach the 2020 European Championships. The Scottish FA will be doing likewise. They appear to be putting all of their eggs in one basket, which is always a gamble. But at this moment in time it appears to the safe bet to make.