Belfast Telegraph

Scots are in need of major lift and Michael O'Neill fits the bill

By Julian Taylor

Several years ago, Michael O'Neill sat down for an interview where he hoped to become the new manager of Hibernian.

For reasons, which remain cloudy, the then Shamrock Rovers boss walked away after a five hour discussion. The call to take over at Easter Road - where he starred as an elegant midfielder in his playing days - never came.

Since then, the stock of Northern Ireland's chief alchemist has risen inexorably, particularly over the last four years.

The last-16 of Euro 2016 and a whisker from progressing to the World Cup via the play-offs has culminated in an inevitable call. The kind where there is every possibility that this time the 48-year-old will be locked in a comfortable Hampden Park lounge until he agrees to shoulder Scotland's wheel.

O'Neill's long-standing adopted homeland has yearned for the success enjoyed by Northern Ireland of late. The covetous glances across the Irish Sea as this still under-rated manager cultivates confidence throughout a devoted squad may finally blossom into a fiery Caledonian romance.

Indeed, that the Scottish FA wasted little time in contacting the IFA over an approach following Northern Ireland's agonising fall to Switzerland last Sunday is telling. Here the Scots, we can safely presume, feel is the man they can trust to galvanise a nation which has, appallingly, failed to trouble a major tournament since the 1998 World Cup.

It is ironic that Northern Ireland's fresh, glorious failure - a concept almost patented throughout Scottish international history - may possibly lead to O'Neill's acceptance of an extensive challenge, not unlike what he faced at Windsor Park six years ago.

"Scottish football is a village - people talk", O'Neill once said of an environment that shaped him as a player with Dundee United and Hibernian. That opportunity at Hibs having mystifyingly eluded him, the Ballymena man is 'the talk of the steamie' with real justification.

Glasgow, specifically, is the nub of Scotland's goldfish bowl mentality. Rangers are swithering over their next managerial choice and O'Neill has been, inevitably, linked with the post as conflicting viewpoints spin over whether Ibrox is a preferred destination for a man keen to switch from international to club football. O'Neill has previously admitted that he wouldn't wish to put his family through the kind of searing scrutiny linked with Old Firm territory. This is understandable, even if the task of reviving Rangers' fortunes has cachet to it.

Scotland is a slightly different dynamic. Any drawback, however, will be determined by the degree of O'Neill's desire for club involvement. Privately, he may worry of the potential danger of being typecast as an international salvage operator if he checks into Hampden.

Mention of O'Neill's name appears to have united positive soundings across Scotland. Mostly, at any rate. Craig Brown, who guided the Scots to France 1998 and Euro 1996, is a fan of O'Neill - while advising that he proceeds with caution.

Brown's belief of the spotlight on a Scotland manager outstripping that of Northern Ireland is beyond debate. Would the popular O'Neill be prepared for this? Particularly in a climate where a succession of managers - Gordon Strachan being the most recent - have failed to reach big tournaments?

The perception in Scotland is that O'Neill can unquestionably fuel confidence again, while simultaneously taking care of minnows like Lithuania.

First and foremost, there's the challenge to improve a suspect central defence. Northern Ireland's steely rearguard is a thing of envy. To assume the Scots are in an irretrievable state is flawed thinking. Kieran Tierney, Andrew Robertson, Stuart Armstrong and Leigh Griffiths are all approaching their peak. And considering O'Neill is a regular observer across the country, not just at Celtic Park and Ibrox, he is ideally positioned to identify emerging talents too.

If he so chooses, the Ulsterman is capable of reassuring both an intense media and a jaded Scotland support. The SFA desire that Strachan's successor can pay more than lip service to initiatives such as 'Project Brave', a new framework where the governing body will assist Academy development at eight clubs. And O'Neill, who knows names and details of every player throughout Northern Ireland international age ranges, fits that remit perfectly.

George Burley, meanwhile, views the Scotland job as a 'poisoned chalice'. It is an isolated opinion. Burley's own reign, between 2008-09, was miserable and an abject failure to motivate and discipline players contributed to his sacking.

Scotland's players will be keen to hear how O'Neill's hands-on coaching is rated by their Northern Ireland counterparts, to appreciate how their future would likely be brighter in the hands of a devoted, ultra-organised obsessive.

Resident in Edinburgh, O'Neill already enjoys a quieter bolt hole from Glasgow's magnificent intensity: a refined retreat for an essentially shy man. Despite this, the logistics of shuttling between the two cities are negligible.

Indications are good - but the SFA still have to be at their most persuasive.

O'Neill has a choice ahead. And the potential fulfilment of transforming Scotland into a country to be feared again can detonate his reputation into the stratosphere.

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