O’Neill still pointing way to Russia while envious Scots hope Swiss can finish job
OVIDIU HATEGAN’s ridiculous decision to award Switzerland a penalty kick may have been cursed from Belfast to Ballymena, but the Romanian referee probably earned himself a new No1 fan in Glasgow. Scottish FA chief executive Stewart Regan has placed the name of Michael O’Neill at the top of the list of contenders to replace Gordon Strachan as Scotland manager and the chances of securing the Northern Ireland boss were enhanced by Hategan’s gamechanging call at Windsor Park on Thursday night.
The official’s decision to penalise a non-existent handball from Corry Evans has left Northern Ireland’s hopes of World Cup qualification hanging by a thread and, should they fail to overturn the 1-0 play-off deficit in tonight’s second leg in Basle, the future of O’Neill will become a hot topic of conversation.
O’Neill has been the SFA’s preferred candidate ever since the decision was taken to sever ties with Strachan on the back of Scotland’s latest doomed attempt at qualifying for a major finals.
Northern Ireland’s continued interest in the World Cup has seen Regan hold back from making an approach to the IFA but despite his talk of an extensive list of candidates, one name stands out from all others.
Performance director Malky Mackay was placed in charge for the friendly against the Netherlands in midweek but, as support grew for the former Cardiff City chief (not discouraged by the man himself), Regan took to radio to bluntly rule out the caretaker just hours before the match.
Regan maintains that he is prepared to wait until next summer to land the right man, an extensive timeframe that would allow latitude for O’Neill’s appointment after the World Cup.
Ideally the new man would be in place sooner to try to plot a course to Euro 2020 and, consequently, Regan has found himself in the warped position of wishing failure on the man who has been identified as offering Scotland a route out of the international wilderness.
Immersed in the business of trying to get his country to a World Cup for the first time in 32 years, O’Neill has been thinking of little other than navigating a path to Russia 2018. Qualification would be the culmination of six years of hard work and would represent the first time a Northern Ireland manager has taken the team to back-to-back tournaments.
‘When I took over I wanted the players to take on a real identity of playing for Northern Ireland,’ said O’Neill. ‘We weren’t starting from a strong position and it was never going to be an overnight fix. You can get into a habit of being poor and losing games and it takes guts to get out there and change that.
‘The players deserve credit for that. Now that they’ve done that, not wanting to go back to the way it was before is all the motivation they need. I remember the whole build-up to Euro 2016 and what it did for the country. We’d all love to experience that again.’
After making it to the Euros, the IFA moved to secure their manager on a new four-year contract in March 2016 on a salary of around £500,000, roughly equal to the terms on which Strachan was employed at Hampden.
The deal was structured to include a hefty release clause for any club wishing to secure his services but that would not apply to a national association. With limited scope to improve the salary, any pitch to O’Neill would likely involve bonus payments based around qualification.
The case for O’Neill’s candidacy is obvious and is bolstered by the fact that the 48-year-old lives in Edinburgh and knows the Scottish football scene better than most. Qualification for Euro 2016 would have been impressive even allowing for UEFA’s decision to enlarge the finals to 24 teams but Northern Ireland blitzed their preliminaries, belying their status as fifth seeds to win the group before making it to the last 16 in the tournament proper.
Making it to the play-offs this time is arguably just as fine an achievement. If beating world champions Germany to top spot was an impossibility, O’Neill’s team brushed aside the Czech Republic with room to spare to finish second.
‘We have got to the stage now where we are genuinely expected to win games and are serious contenders to reach major finals,’ says forward Josh Magennis, once of Kilmarnock and now operating in England’s League One with Charlton Athletic. ‘That’s just ridiculous in my eyes. I used to dream of that as a wee boy.’
Magennis hadn’t even been born when Northern Ireland were last at a World Cup with Pat Jennings, Norman Whiteside and O’Neill’s assistant Jimmy Nicholl in the team that took on Algeria, Spain and the Brazil of Careca, Socrates and Josimar.
O’Neill was 16 at the time and still waiting on the life-changing move from Coleraine to Newcastle United that would earn him a full international cap the following year.
It was O’Neill’s good fortune to be bled into a team used to success under Billy Bingham but he never did manage to play at a major finals himself.
The current Northern Irish team boasts two top-class operators in West Brom centre-back Jonny Evans and Steven Davis, the Southampton midfielder who celebrated his 100th cap against the Swiss. Davis is now 32, while defenders Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes are 37 and 38 respectively. O’Neill has made a virtue of the fact he has been picking from a shallow pool of around 40 professionals these past few years and his options do not look like deepening.
It’s a testament to his man management skills that he commands universal respect from his players.
‘Michael is at the top of the pyramid and everything filters down from him,’ continues Magennis. ‘He is not a selfish manager. He makes sure everyone is sorted and that the preparation is right.
‘It’s all about making things right for the players and he is good at taking the pressure away from us, especially in the media. ‘His analysis and attention to detail is brilliant. On top of that, his knowledge of the game is deep. He knows the strengths of our team and where to compensate and that means he has got the absolute best out of us.’ O’Neill’s alchemy has raised the standard but against Switzerland the team resorted to hitting hopeful high balls towards Kyle Lafferty and Magennis to little reward. A team built on defensive organisation, a ruthless exploitation of set-pieces and an unwillingness to contemplate defeat can take you a long way but at some stage O’Neill may decide he has taken them far as he can. On O’Neill’s watch Northern Ireland have proven themselves to be a better team than Scotland but few would argue that the quality of player in green shirts is higher than of those available to Scotland. While Mackay was handing a first Scotland start to Callum McGregor, a Champions League scorer against Bayern Munich a week earlier, O’Neill viewed Millwall’s George Saville as his best midfield option to shackle Swiss schemers Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri. Still, at 1-0 down it would be folly to write off O’Neill’s men. They played poorly at Windsor Park and yet the Swiss, for all their territorial dominance, required the hand of Hategan to win. O’Neill commenced his programme for Thursday’s match by stating: ‘As a player or coach there will be matches which define your career and sit outside the normal run of games.’ If he pulls off another big result tonight he may be celebrating another piece of history. If not, he is likely to be offered the chance to write a fresh piece of folklore on the other side of the Irish Sea.
TOP BOSS: THE HAND OF HATEGAN: Corry Evans is harshly penalised by referee Ovidiu Hategan for handball against Switzerland in the first leg in Belfast
Josh Magennis is a big fan of Michael O’Neill’s methods