Michael O’Neill is going to be the next Scotland manager. Or he might not be.…
Storms raged over Scotland this month, and not just those that brought snow. Across medialand and the interwebs there were collective meltdowns because a man with a job turned down the opportunity to take another job. Michael O’Neill was offered the Scotland job and politely declined. Hell hath no fury.
It’s hard to be rational in the face of a force ten feej, but it’s fair to say the reaction to this news was a little extreme. A Northern Irishman, in charge of his country ranked 25th in the world, decided against taking charge of his place of residence, ranked 37th.
Most of the ire was aimed at the Scottish FA for their public courting of a sole candidate. Some criticism is justified, especially over the publicity of the pursuit and in managing the collective expectations of Scotland fans. Having a sole candidate and pursuing them seems like an eminently sensible approach when you consider that the opposite would be hesitancy over lots of targets.
Criticism of the speed of discussions seems unfair too. When you have identified one target, and they’ve shown at least a willingness to talk to you, you move at the pace they dictate. Alternatively, the Scottish FA could have discovered his willingness to discuss terms, but walked away because they weren’t taking place at their convenience?
Equally, some of the comments about O’Neill have been baffling. “He’s taken them as far as he could”, suggests we’re setting our expectations above Northern Ireland’s recent achievements. If the key performance indicator of the next Scotland manager is to reach the latter stages of a major tournament, the position will only be of interest to certifiable lunatics.
O’Neill’s decision to reject Scotland was a setback, but it was not apocalyptic. There may not have been other candidates, but there are certainly other possibilities, especially when you consider the routes taken by other nations around Europe.
When O’Neill was appointed Northern Ireland manager he was unemployed, failing to agree a new contract with a successful Shamrock Rovers side. His previous managerial experience had been with Brechin City. These facts are not meant to prove some kind of patronising ‘he had no experience of managing top talent’ point, only that there are These Kinds Of Managers outside of our immediate sphere of thought.
Recency bias plays a huge part of any pursuit. Fans want a talisman; someone to restore faith in qualification prospects and stoke optimism; a man who has won things in recent memory, and can point to obvious successes. They don’t want a manager with a solid track record who failed in their last job, regardless of successes in the preceding decades. Successes can be lucky, but you earn your misfortune.
Chris Coleman helped Wales reach the semi-finals of the European Championships. Prior to that, he’d been sacked by relegated Coventry City and endured a rough time managing in Greece and Spain. England turned to Gareth Southgate out of desperation rather than desire, and he’s (whisper it) made them boringly effective. His previous experience in management was relegation with Middlesbrough and a spell as under-21 manager. And that was meant as a patronising “he’s had no previous experience of success.”
Being brutally honest, international football management is attractive to three groups of people – those desperate to get back into club football, those looking for a comfortable bureaucratic role and those in semi-retirement. The former can offer a quick fix for an international side, the latter a steady hand. It’s the group in the middle that we need to explore. Find the personality, not the CV.
International managers are not coaches in any traditional sense. They certainly need tactical nous, and the ability to get the best out of their players, but they’re not expected to develop or nurture them, or to impart great knowledge. A club manager needs to have detailed knowledge of every opponent, understand training schedules, transfer plans, contracts, scouting networks, training conditions, fitness levels, and the day-in day-out personal lives of twenty or so young men.
International coaches don’t. They are man-managers and diplomats, bringing the best of a nation together, combining personalities and making them feel part of something bigger.
That’s where O’Neill has succeeded with Northern Ireland, in making the national team the best, or at least the most enjoyable, part of a player’s career. Niall McGinn has said of O’Neill that “he works according to every player’s need”, and Steven Davis explained that “everyone loves working with him.” These never come across as platitudes, and it’s obvious that the players enjoyed their time together. That’s what we need to recreate.
This kind of appointment doesn’t lend itself well to “who should Scotland go for next” call-ins, as it requires thought and a fairly robust interview process. Maybe it’s Alex McLeish, maybe it’s Jack Ross, maybe it’s Robbie Neilsen, maybe it’s Scott Gemmill, maybe it’s someone from further down the pyramid who really gets it. Maybe we now need to explore some of these options, that’s what Northern Ireland did.
Fitting the personality rather than the honours list is laborious, but that’s what has to happen to get the right man for the next two/four/six years, and not just the one who is right for now.