O’Neill still point­ing way to Rus­sia while en­vi­ous Scots hope Swiss can fin­ish job

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - SPORTS - By Graeme Croser

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

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