Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland boss O'Neill top choice as Scots strive to bring back glory days


By Julian Taylor

Disaster for Scotland. Those infamous, wilting words by the late, legendary Scottish TV commentator, Arthur Montford, were uttered with exasperation on more than one occasion.

There was a jagged reminder of past days and nights of underachievement, following the Scots' agonising draw in Slovenia which dashed hopes of reaching the World Cup play-offs.

Thursday's departure of manager Gordon Strachan was, ultimately, not unexpected.

As usual, the hope - this time in Ljubljana - killed Scotland.

The Scottish Football Association are charged with delivering a panacea after all this deflation, amid another failure to reach a first major tournament since the 1998 World Cup.

If Scotland yearn for better times then - rather than the lacklustre option of interim manager Malky MacKay - the answer lies close to home.

In Edinburgh, a proven, resourceful international boss is a long-term inhabitant.

The issue for a disappointed Scottish nation is that he is currently engaged with Northern Ireland. Is contented dweller Michael O'Neill shortly to have what could be classified as an interesting conversation?

Therefore, the upcoming play-offs for Northern Ireland are vital, not just in terms of reaching Russia next summer but also for the retention of O'Neill himself.

Damned specialists in glorified failure, Scotland have taken far too many wrong managerial turns in the modern era.

Berti Vogts, George Burley, Craig Levein and Strachan have all tried without success.

Walter Smith and Alex McLeish have gone close in a fire fighting sense a decade or so ago, yet - despite a strong end to World Cup qualifying - they still languish.

Hope in football remains important to a country's sense of self - witness Panama and Iceland for recent confirmation - however, in Scotland's case, dreams drift aimlessly.

That is what a generation on the outside does to you.

Why, exactly, have Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland reached the play-offs and the Scots remain in existential crisis? Not forgetting Iceland, who have actually qualified? Astute management.

Do any of these teams genuinely possess superior footballers? While the Tartan Army have feasted on traditional, daring tales of Baxter, Law, Dalglish and Souness, few nations can rely on equivalent, contemporary world-class stars.

In the here and now, unlike Strachan, often prickly for the sake of it, O'Neill, Iceland chief Heimir Hallgrimsson and Republic boss Martin O'Neill are all figures who command respect and fire up players emotionally as well as tactically.

While we are still talking theoretically, the play-offs are potentially Northern Ireland's glass ceiling.

Defeat and O'Neill will be on the SFA wish-list. A switch will come at a cost to Hampden Park; nonetheless O'Neill would be worth both approximately £750,000 compensation plus a similar annual salary, dwarfing what he receives from the IFA.

In simple terms, O'Neill can essentially upscale his income for the audition he relishes: spiking a self-fulfilling pessimism and rekindling the desires of a fallen nation.

Over, say, a four-year contract, the Ballymena man can set himself up lavishly while continuing to regularly attend Scottish Premiership games.

No participation in Russia next year wouldn't be a disgrace for Northern Ireland with O'Neill's stock remaining high. Moreover, the prospect of vital players either on the brink of retirement, such as Gareth McAuley, and those, like Chris Brunt, Steven Davis and Kyle Lafferty entering the autumn of their careers, the temptation for a change of scene must be there for an ambitious man.

How O'Neill loves to prove people wrong. After a troubling start to his Northern Ireland tenure he has built a confident team reaching Euro 2016 and capable of compelling victories in Greece, Hungary and Azerbaijan.

This kind of scrupulousness and resilience has got to appeal to Scotland, where abject losses across their last two campaigns, away to Georgia, Slovakia and, to a lesser extent, England, smothered hopes.

Scotland is a challenging, but not impossible, job.

O'Neill would already realise Christophe Berra is lacking compared to Jonny Evans, and an ageing Scott Brown - who is expected to leave the international scene shortly anyway - is inferior to Davis, there are, though, talents to refuel.

Andrew Robertson and Kieran Tierney are zesty full-backs, Robert Snodgrass drives miles in midfield, Stuart Armstrong is a real creator and Leigh Griffiths guarantees archetypal Scottish drama to garland goals.

O'Neill - an expert in dealing with controversial characters, such as Lafferty - would be unlikely to keep the Celtic forward in cold storage as Strachan chose to do at the start of the qualifiers.

Lithuania, a poor side, claimed a point in Glasgow: another reason why Scotland have plenty of time on their hands.

It's inconceivable that a buoyant Northern Ireland would have failed to deal with them.

There is appeal for the SFA in, for instance, David Moyes and Sam Allardyce, both free agents.

The latter, while a proven cajoler of impossible causes must be measured against the Ulsterman: young, shrewd and internationally primed. Perhaps most importantly, the 48-year-old has supplied Northern Ireland fans with some of the most intoxicating times of their lives, the kind of extreme euphoria Scots once indulged in.

Curiously, Michael O'Neill remains overlooked for the money-spinning Premier League carousel.

The window is now opening for a timely, state-of-Scotland address, and to flex ambitions which should never have been allowed to waver in the first place.

Belfast Telegraph

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