Belfast Telegraph

Sunday Life

Why Michael O'Neill is ready to reject Scotland and pen new deal with Northern Ireland

By Paul Ferguson

It is exactly 95 days today since Gordon Strachan left his post as Scotland manager. A failure to guide the Scots into the 2018 World Cup play-offs signalled the death knell for the former Celtic supremo.

Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill was immediately installed as the Scottish FA’s favourite to succeed Strachan but the Hampden Park chiefs, believing they were showing good grace, waited until three days after Northern Ireland were knocked out of the World Cup by Switzerland in Basel before making an official approach for the 48 year-old’s services.

Championship strugglers Sunderland did likewise. That was on November 15.

Twenty four hours later, the Black Cats were politely informed through O’Neill’s agent that his man had no interest in discussing the Sunderland position, but a dialogue could be opened with the Scots, provided permission was granted by the Irish FA.

Reluctant Windsor Park chiefs, out of courtesy to their over-achieving manager, agreed talks could take place, provided the SFA met the stipulation, which is written in O’Neill’s current contract, of agreeing in writing to pay the half-a-million compensation should they appoint him to succeed Strachan.

Cue months of dithering at Hampden Park and a scare for the Scots, when O’Neill was suddenly the bookies’ favourite for the West Brom job, only for the Baggies to go with Premier League experience and Alan Pardew.

SFA Chief Executive Stewart Regan was left embarrassed. He had made it publicly known O’Neill was his No.1 target  and he obviously assumed, like Rangers with Aberdeen boss  Derek McInnes earlier this season, that once the Scots was on the table for O’Neill it would simply be fait accompli. His board now wanted answers and why they needed to shell out extra money.

Regan was desperately playing catch-up. He was well aware his counterpart in Belfast, Patrick Nelson, and the Irish FA Chairman Gerry Mallon, with a move from the Scots anticipated, had acted quickly and decisively in Basel after the play-off match, offering the most lucrative deal in Northern Ireland football history to O’Neill — a four-year extension on his current contract to take him up to 2024 and a pay rise of £200,000 a year, which would see his salary move up to £700,000.

O’Neill, still raw and emotional after being dumped out of the World Cup in such controversial circumstances — Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan’s blunder led to Switzerland’s only goal of the tie — was in no mood to make a rash decision, even though he was, and is, overwhelmed by the incredible faith being shown in him and the lucrative offer on the table.

Initially, word emanating from Glasgow was that the salary they were prepared to offer would blow the IFA out of the water and make O’Neill the highest paid manager in their history, with £1 million a year mentioned in despatches.

During late November and early December, that figure was slowly reduced and, it is now understood, any deal from the Scots will be above O’Neill’s current salary but below the £700,000 a year that the IFA would be willing to pay him should he stay in post until 2024.

The compensation package was of great concern to the Scots though and they were refusing to send through any documentation which would agree to the IFA’s stipulations.

In a desperate bid to satisfy his board, Regan was on the phone with IFA counterpart Nelson asking for the half a million compensation to be either dropped, or, at the very least, greatly reduced.

Nelson stood firm then and has remained resolute over the compensation figure to this day.

O’Neill was seemingly unperturbed by the saga, simply going about his business as Northern Ireland manager as normal. He was over at Windsor Park talking 2018 strategy with IFA employees and discussing how he could get more involved in the youth development side of the association and Club NI — an elite programme dear to his heart.

On the afternoon of Thursday, December 14, O’Neill met the IFA hierarchy to discuss their proposed new deal, it was a positive and constructive meeting and they promised to meet again in January.

The Scots still hadn’t made any move when O’Neill’s flights for the Nations League draw in Lausanne on January 24 were booked and he discussed and rubber stamped a summer tour for his Northern Ireland senior team to Central America and games against Panama and Costa Rica.

Then last Thursday, 57 days after they’d made an official approach for O’Neill’s services, written confirmation came through from the SFA that they would agree to the compensation demands and any notice period should they hire the former Dundee United and Hibs midfielder.

The Scots blamed legal checks and due diligence for the delay and deadlock.

Irish FA chiefs initially feared the worst with O’Neill set to meet Regan and members of the SFA board in Scotland this week, but Sunday Life understands, following conversations, there is no longer apprehension in the corridors of power at Windsor Park.

The IFA fully expect O’Neill to be the Northern Ireland manager at the Nations League draw in 10 days’ time and when they play a Windsor Park friendly during the international window in March.

O’Neill has stated he wants his future sorted out by the end of January and understandably hasn’t been hasty in his decision-making.

He has taken the last eight weeks to assess his options thoroughly and, of course, one of the questions he would have been mulling over is whether, with retirement beckoning for a number of key players and some of his stars well into their 30s,  has he taken this Northern Ireland squad as far as he can? With only a few youngsters being drip-fed into the squad, is there another successful qualification campaign in the boys in green?

O’Neill is hero worshipped for taking the team to their first Euro finals two years ago and just missing out on the 2018 World Cup but reinvigorating a Scotland side must have an exciting appeal.

Scotland has a much higher profile and so success could finally fast-track him into a Premier League position, however, O’Neill, with less than 10 international matches usually in a calendar year, enjoys having a major say in all aspects of the IFA. It’s unlikely he would be afforded such privilege in Scotland and what about the fact he is a proud Northern Ireland man while in Scotland he would simply be a ‘hired gun’.

SFA chief Regan had hoped to hear positive vibes from O’Neill’s camp before discussions start this week for his own satisfaction. That hasn’t been forthcoming.

Regan hopes his trump card will be offering O’Neill a substantial bonus, in the region of half-a-million quid, should he lead Scotland to the Euro 2020 finals.

But the IFA are confident the 100 days milestone will pass for Scotland and the SFA will be in exactly the same position they were on the afternoon of October 12, 2017.

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