Why Michael O’Neill would be the right fit for Scotland
The 48-year-old will hold talks with the Scottish FA next week. O’Neill has been an outstanding manager for Northern Ireland, but he might not be able to keep exceeding expectations for much longer. He might just have more options and more time at Scotland. By Paige Beresford
Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill is Scotland’s target for replacing Gordon Strachan, but his current employers won’t be giving him up without a fight.
O’Neill’s work with Shamrock Rovers is the real proof that he can make Scotland solid in a way that Strachan couldn’t; not the mention he has showed he can cut it at international level by taking Northern Ireland to a Euros.
Although Strachan had a decent win ratio, two failed campaigns are far more pertinent, which meant that his exit was a no-brainer. All the while O’Neill was winning a European Championship qualifying group before taking Northern Ireland to a World Cup play-off. Where Scotland have failed for two decades, Northern Ireland prevailed.
What O’Neill has done for the Northern Irish is astounding, and he is now known for being a bit of a European specialist. To take Shamrock Rovers to the Europa League group stage shows he has ability. He has an international pedigree but has also done it at club level in Europe.
Europe is a slightly different scene from internationals but he has proved he’s tailor-made for both. Normally Shamrock are not considered as a group-stage team but he made them into one.
Northern Ireland topped their Euro 2016 qualification group with only one defeat in 10 games. Although cynics have said O’Neill got lucky taking them to their first major tournament in 30 years, it would be unfair to be disparaging and say they got through because the group was soft.
Not to mention if he did come to Scotland, O’Neill could bring defensive solidity – tackling the team’s biggest problem.
Although players Grant Hanley and Russell Martin perform well, there is a weakness in Scotland’s central defence.
The quality of players in Scotland is not any less than those O’Neill has at Northern Ireland, and one thing that he has shown he is good at is organisation and team shape. His players know exactly when to press and when to back off and he could bring that to Scotland. Defending in key games is vital and something Scotland needs to focus their attention on.
One thing that could make things easier for O’Neill at Scotland is the fact that he has a larger choice of players. At Northern Ireland he often has very little “picking” to do: when his best 11 are available, they play. It isn’t worth his while going to closely watch players like Jonny Evans to see how their form’s doing. If they’re available, they’re in.
He doesn’t have the equivalent of players like Keiran Tierney (20), Oli Burke (20), Oli McBurnie (21), Andy Robertson (23), Ryan Fraser (23), Callum McGregor (24), Stuart Armstrong (25), James Forrest (26), and Leigh Griffiths (27) and so on. Players with years ahead of them and either with lots of Champions League or English Premier League experience already or bags of potential.
Also, Northern Ireland does not have a domestic game in the same league as Scotland’s. The SPFL have two major clubs that have an average of 50,000 home crowds and another three teams averaging more than 15,000. So far this season, no Irish team is averaging more than 2,500.
That’s an entire support system, an entire breeding ground and platform for potential international players, that a Scotland manager has and an Irish manager doesn’t, which means it is so much easier to expose their players to the Champions League group stage.
O’Neill has been an outstanding manager for Northern Ireland but he might not be able to keep exceeding expectations for much longer. His key players are getting too old and there is far too little coming through to replace them, and he might just have more options and more time at Scotland.