Gordon Smith: Let’s make an exception in Michael O’Neill’s case over Scotland job

Michael O'Neill, Manager of Northern Ireland looks on during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Play-Off: Second Leg between Switzerland and Northern Ireland at St. Jakob-Park on November 12, 2017 in Basel, Basel-Stadt. (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

AS a rule, I have always felt the manager of a country should meet the same qualifying criteria as his players.

That the role he or she fills should fall under the spirit of competition between two nations, with the quality of leadership being tested along with the standard of elite footballer.

In the search for the next Scotland manager, however, I am happy to make an exception for Michael O’Neill.

Portadown-born, but almost an honorary Scot because of his time spent living, playing and coaching in this country, he is an outstanding candidate to succeed Gordon Strachan.

His achievement in taking Northern Ireland to the 2016 Euros, and the 2018 World Cup play-offs just past, is nothing short of remarkable.

This with a group from which I think only Steven Davis and Jonny Evans would get a game for us.

I say that with no disrepect to their team-mates, a group who always give their absolute all for the team.

Effort and commitment, though, are not what we are short of.

Remember, too, that O’Neill got the post off the back of an outstanding run in club football with Shamrock Rovers.

O’Neill was the first manager to lead a League of Ireland side into the group stages of a European competition.

Their victory over Partizan Belgrade in the Europa League play-off captured the imagination of football fans everywhere.

So it is no surprise at all the SFA would target him as their top choice to become their next national manager.

We have assembled a group of players good enough to, at last, take us back to the Finals of a major tournament. What we need now is the right man to get us over the line.

With his proven motivational ability and up-to-the-minute international experience, Michael looks the best fit from a market which is by no means short of quality.

Alex McLeish was a very good Scotland manager. But that was 10 years ago. In modern sport, a decade is a long time.

Paul Lambert is also a talented coach who, in particular, was excellent at Norwich, but he has only ever been in charge of clubs.

What has taken me aback is that the Irish FA have granted permission for the SFA to speak to Michael when they have him under contract.

That suggests to me O’Neill has indicated he wants to move on and that they should consider the alternatives out there, of which there are plenty.

Just look at the men earning their living in Scotland!

St Johnstone’s Tommy Wright has indicated his view that being manager of Northern Ireland would be a dream job for him.

Michael’s current assistant, Jimmy Nicholl, also Paul Hartley’s No. 2 at Falkirk, was a legend as a player for his country and is another very talented boss.

Stephen Robinson has made an excellent impression at Motherwell in the short time he has been at Fir Park, and has a chance to make history next Sunday in the Betfred League Cup Final.

Brendan Rodgers and Neil Lennon are two other examples of the close links between the countries. But they are going great guns and will be happy enough with their respective positions at Celtic and Hibs.

It is the Scotland position which interests us most, though.

SFA chief executive Stewart Regan was honest in admitting how desperate the leadership is for the country to reach Euro 2020 and have Scotland play at Hampden.

A big step towards that goal will be getting the manager in place, and I would hope to see the appointment made sooner rather than later.

If a reminder were needed of what the alternative is, it came with the talk of a so-called “World Cup of Losers” proposed by the United States.

To be played before the big event, the tournament could feature the likes of Italy, Holland, Chile, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, as well as America.

I can see the appeal for the hosts, who have TV schedules to fill. But it is not one I can see happening.

One World Cup is enough for any summer.

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