By Brian P. Dunleavy
Scotland’s manager (until very recently) Gordon Strachan lives in the Midlands region of England, having relocated there from his long-time home in Southampton.
His counterpart for the Republic of Ireland, Derry native Martin O’Neill, also maintains a home in England, as does the Irishman’s assistant, Roy Keane. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland bench boss (and native) Michael O’Neill (no relation, of course) is based in Edinburgh, and has been since he played for Hibs in the 1990s.
Confused? Imagine how the bean-counters in the managers’ respective federations feel when they need to put the payroll in the post.
Seriously, where these national team managers live isn’t necessarily relevant with respect to the attachment they have for the countries for which they work or the passion and attention with which they perform their duties. After all, some of the best international managers plied their trades for countries other than their home nations. Giovanni Trapattoni… Jürgen Klinsmann… Fabio Capello…
Okay, we’re being unfair. The fact is, Strachan and the non-brothers O’Neill have all arguably been far more successful than these extreme examples of foreign gaffers gone wild. After a sluggish start to 2018 World Cup qualifying, Scotland nearly pulled off a miracle to pip Slovakia for a playoff spot. Northern Ireland finished second in their group (behind Germany), as did the Republic in theirs (following a big win in Wales on Monday), and both will be in the World Cup playoffs in November.
As a result, Michael O’Neill seems to have his job in place for as long as he wants it. Martin O’Neill and Keane were both given contract extensions through 2020.
However, where these men choose to set up house does seem to have an influence on their respective team selections—and perhaps not necessarily for the better. Strachan’s starting XI against Slovenia, for example, included seven players on the payroll of English clubs—three for Championship sides and one, Charlie Mulgrew, for a League 1 outfit—and three Celtic stalwarts. Only Christophe Berra, at Hearts, plays for a Scottish club outside Glasgow.
This is not to say that the likes of, say, Dundee’s Jack Hendry are the answer to all of the Tartan Army’s problems on the back line (however, to be fair, Hendry is still only 22 and may still develop into an internationalist), but Strachan’s Anglophile focus, and his reliance on Celtic players, could potentially have clouded his judgement with regard to other talent around the Scottish leagues. Hibs midfielder John McGinn, for example, is arguably the hottest player in the Premiership at this point and yet he saw not a minute of action in either of Scotland’s last two, vital qualifiers.
Similarly, all but seven of Michael O’Neill’s “Norn Irn” men work for English clubs, with Niall McGinn seemingly playing himself out of contention in South Korea. The other six (ironically?) play in Scotland.
Finally, all of the players in Martin O’Neill’s Republic side bar one—oft-unused Jonny Hayes of Celtic (coincidence?)—ply their respective trades in England. Yes, the leagues in the North and the Republic are barely professional status, and serve as places where youngsters develop and older players fade away (see: McCourt, Paddy), but couldn’t there be a diamond somewhere in that rough? Or, novel thought, an established player working in, say, Scotland?
We know: Neither O’Neill needs to take our advice on squad selection, and Strachan has managed a lot more teams to a lot more trophies than we have.
We only ask what, if any, role geography has played in the fortunes of all three national teams. After all, you don’t need to consult a map to realize that all three could use some new blood—even as both Irish sides still have their eyes on Russia.