Last night, the Republic of Ireland beat Austria with a dogged, professional, display that seemed to sum up Martin O’Neill’s time as their national coach in a single ninety minutes. There was nothing fancy about it. It was solid, and workmanlike. It was focussed and disciplined. Those were hallmarks you associated with Martin’s Celtic team.
The night before, at Wembley, Scotland’s manager Gordon Strachan had watched in horror as his team conceded three times from headers, preventable goals all of them. As O’Neill’s team has morphed into grinders, the kind that qualifies for major tournament finals regularly but without setting the world on fire, Strachan’s has gone the other way, into an accident prone nightmare which can turn in decent enough displays but always possesses the tendency to undo it all in a moment, and which at Wembley pressed England and made them look pedestrian and ordinary at times but which nevertheless finished the game on the end of a three goal deficit.
To a certain extent, these traits were present when both men were at Celtic Park, but other things, also present during the tenures, have asserted themselves as time has gone by; Strachan’s inflexible approach and O’Neill’s tactical rigidity. Martin tends to find something that works, and sticks with it long after it has become stale. The Irish fans have complained about that, but it gets results in these type of encounters so the complaining is not terribly loud.
Strachan also tends to stick to one approach, but the trouble with him is that he settles on it before he know if it works or not, and then he stays wedded to it in the hope that players adapt quickly and that it bears fruit. Initially, he seemed to be approaching the Scotland job in a different way – he talked about not putting “square pegs in round holes” – but since has done some stuff that simply doesn’t fit that description, such as playing Anya at right back on Friday.
The problems that bedevilled Gordon in his final year at Celtic – his final two years if we’re being fair – are dogging Scotland now. Martin’s over-reliance on certain players and the dull nature of the football often caused grumblings in our stands, but as with the Republic of Ireland fans continued success has made it tolerable. It’s the oldest story in football.
Gordon is being lacerated because he’s failing. Martin’s football is getting results. The worst of it is, from a Scottish point of view, that there’s not a lot to choose from between the two teams. When you see the Welsh and the North of Ireland team doing so well on top of it there’s a temptation to blame Strachan for all the ills of the world.
In the battle of the Celt’s he’s certainly come off worst, although ironically enough he won the Battle of the Bosses when the two sides met some years ago. But whilst Martin has enjoyed positive results since then Gordon has seen his stock slide with the Tartan Army.
But the question that obviously arises is who else is there?
Former Rangers boss Alex McLeish – the man who actually bested O’Neill before Strachan sent him packing – is being touted by some in the media, but that feels like a backward step. The trouble is there’s no up and comer, no young thruster with the world at his feet, who is poised to come in instead.
Scottish football appointed the best man there was available on these shores when they got Strachan in. You’d have to be pretty parochial to rule out a foreign coach – as England appears to have done – but bringing in someone from abroad would be a risk unless you spent the money required to get someone good, as Ireland did before O’Neill.
Everything is a risk in football these days. One thing is for sure, the former Celtic boss looks as if he’s run down the clock on his Scotland career. The biggest risk would be to ignore than do nothing. Changes have to be made, and sadly they need to start at the top.