1) Doing more with less
Fleetwood Town. Millwall. Shrewsbury. Burton sodding Albion. As well as ruining your lower-league accumulator each Saturday, these teams are home to some of the mainstays of the Northern Ireland national team. Michael O’Neill has had to fashion a national side out of a pool of 40 professional players at the same time as fighting the advances of the Republic of Ireland, who have already stolen away Shane Duffy, James McLean, Marc Wilson and Darron Gibson in the recent past.
As Scotland manager, O’Neill would have the team well-drilled and well aware of the strengths of their opponents and surely harden us up a little at the back. Our centre-back pairing isn’t the best, but if he can get Cathcart and McAuley to shut out Ukraine and limit Germany to one goal, surely he can do the same with Martin and Hanley.
If he can manage to take a Northern Ireland squad which – in the worst way possible – picks itself to the last 16 of the European Championships, imagine what he can do with Scotland.
2) Make Hampden a fortress
Despite all the fad diets out there, common sense dictates that the best way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more. When it comes to international qualifying campaigns, closing out at home and picking up what you can away from home is the recipe for success; yet, as Graeme has comprehensively demonstrated elsewhere, Scotland’s ineptitude at home has repeatedly cost us dearly. O’Neill, however, has made 18,000-capacity Windsor Park a fortress. Across the 2014 and 2016 qualifying campaigns, his home record is W4 D4 L2, while for Scotland it was W4 D3 L3. Even more impressively, as fifth (FIFTH!) seeds, Northern Ireland didn’t lose a single match at home during their last qualifying campaign, winning three and drawing twice. OK, it may have only been Greece, Finland and the Faroes that capitulated, but given that we just drew with Lithuania, are we really in a position to be snide?
3) It’s a team effort
Successive Scotland managers have made noises about trying to get a club atmosphere for Scotland games. It’s a nice wee soundbite, but for those watching the game against Slovakia you’d wonder if some of the team had ever met each other before. One of the unintended benefits of Northern Ireland having such a small pool of players is that O’Neill has genuinely managed to achieve this. Their performances at Euro 2016 made it clear that each player knew their role, knew the role of every other player and knew what the manager wanted (other than the collective brainfart of their final substitution against Ukraine, where nobody seemed to know what was going on). This no doubt stems from his attitude towards his players. His players would run through walls for him, and it’s hard to imagine a situation where he’d act like a petty Caligula and – as totally random examples – drop a young, promising, chaos factor, potential game-changing winger from the matchday squad entirely, or choose two carthorses ahead of the country’s most lethal striker. In his interview on the Graham Hunter podcast before the Euros, it’s evident just how much he values the contribution of each member of the squad, even those who aren’t picked in the starting eleven.
4) He’s not a prick…ly pear
O’Neill is a down-to-earth guy who takes his job seriously and can talk to the media without either sounding defensive, arrogant or just plain deluded. That might seem like a low bar to set, but let’s face it, we’ve not had the best run of managers. Strachan has a stubborn streak which has no doubt led to him choosing not to call up certain players or start others because he doesn’t want to look as if he’s being forced to do it by the fans or media. Although nobody wants a weak-willed manager, this bloody-mindedness is counterproductive and has cost us dearly in this week’s double-header. His bizarre fixation with the blood and thunder of the English Championship and belittling of the domestic game is also disappointing. O’Neill, on the other hand, has spoken honestly but respectfully of the limits he faces in his current post, and makes his limited choices for on-the-field rather than off-the-field tactical reasons. Given that it was a Scottish Premiership duo who set up and scored the second goal against the Ukraine, he’s also well aware that we’re not a backwater incapable of providing international players. He might lack Strachan’s ability to throw out a zinger to the press pack who hunt for stories in the hum-drum of international week, but for me, no news would be good news.
5) Let’s be realistic…
There is not a single Scottish manager who seems like the natural next appointment. Lambert? Moyes? McLeish? Not for me, pal. The Berti Vogts experiment – a great name for a band, by the way – has unfairly put many off the idea of a manager from further afield, and the continental names being bandied about are fantastic but also fantastical. We know that the SFA won’t break the bank for Bielsa or rattle cages by appointing Big Sam, and we’ve missed the boat on Lars Lagerback, who I’d view as another brilliant choice. The only option left is to meet halfway by appointing somebody who knows and respects the domestic Scottish game, but is still distant enough to be able to make the necessary changes to our national set-up.
It might take a considerable package to tempt O’Neill away from his homeland, particularly given their decent start to the World Cup qualifying campaign, and to give the IFA the cover to let their most successful manager talk to another Home Nation, but would you honestly rather see the same amount of money blown on a mediocre Scot with no track record in international football? Regardless of how this qualifying campaign goes for both sides, O’Neill and Scotland will each be at a crossroads. International football seems to suit O’Neill, and we need somebody who knows how to cultivate a team spirit among a ragtag group of underdogs and do the business at home. It might not be a razzmatazz appointment, but it is the right one.
Written by Gary Cocker