Talking Sport … with Jim Tait

The Scottish Football Association has made an acute embarassment of itself over the knockback from Michael O’Neill, its preferred candidate for the international football manager’s job.

After the unseemly haste to get rid of previous incumbent Gordon Strachan, followed by the prolonged lack of activity over appointing his successor, the SFA has become a laughing stock with loyal supporters of the Scottish team.

It is understood that part of the delay could have been down to the recent death of O’Neill’s elderly mother, and not wanting to rush the Northern Ireland manager into a snap decision. That in itself is acceptable, but certainly not enough to land the SFA in the situation it now finds itself in.

Personally I would much rather they had gone for a Scottish manager in the first place, which is now the most likely remaining option. Paul Lambert would have been my choice, but it is now too late as he has been appointed to the position at Stoke City.

Others have been touted this week, such as under-21 manager Scot Gemmill and director of football Malky McKay, who SFA chief executive Stewart Regan previously ruled out of contention after he stood in for the last friendly against Holland.

The names of Aberdeen boss Derek McInnes and Steve Clarke of Kilmarnock have also been mentioned, although Alex McLeish, who held the Scotland job briefly just over a decade ago before leaving for Birmingham City, now appears to be the most suitable candidate available.

The post still interested him, McLeish told a Scottish newspaper this week. He knew that O’Neill had been the favourite, but it wouldn’t be the first time he had got a job on the rebound.

That is a very magnanimous approach from McLeish, a world away from the self-centred attitude from what will become his new employer should be be appointed. In order not to lose face even further, if that is possible, Regan should act now and pick up the phone.

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Following the Edinburgh derby match on Sunday, when Hearts ended a run of nine disappointments to knock Hibs out of the Scottish Cup, the defeated manager Neil Lennon was once more in the news.

He branded Craig Levein “disrespectful” after his Hearts counterpart’s claim that “natural order” had been restored following the victory.

“What does that mean, restoring natural order?” Lennon told the Press Association. “I don’t understand what that is. Hearts beating Hibs every time? There’s a lack of humility in that statement.”

While Levein’s choice of words could perhaps have been better – Lennon obviously didn’t get them – I doubt if he was insinuating that Hearts should rightly be winning all the time. I believe he was simply suggesting that the “natural order” of Edinburgh derbies was success for both sides, something that hasn’t happened for a number of years.

If Lennon had criticised Levein’s behaviour in the technical area, where he blatantly pushed a Hibs player in the chest for no apparent reason, he may well have had a point. Levein was out of order.

But to accuse the Hearts manager because of a failure to grasp his point of view does nothing other than illustrate Lennon’s paucity when it comes to understanding language usage.

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The tributes this week to former footballer Jimmy Armfield, who died on Monday aged 82, illustrated how the world of football had changed so much over the past half a century.

Armfield, like so many of his generation, was a loyal one-club man, making a record 627 appearances for his home town of Blackpool. He was a gentle but passionate character, who continued in the same vein when working as a BBC radio commentator for more than 35 years.

He was capped 43 times by England and but for injury would likely have featured in the World Cup-winning side. Skippering the team on 15 occasions, Armfield was apparently manager Alf Ramsay’s captain of choice for 1966, so only a quirk of fate led to Bobby Moore having the honour of lifting the Jules Rimet Trophy.

I doubt very much if the modest Lancastrian ever pushed that point though, so it would be ill-becoming of a worthless scribe like myself to do so.

After retiring Armfield managed Bolton Wanderers and then Leeds United, taking over after the short-lived venture with Brian Clough. He guided the club to the European Cup final of 1975 where despite being the better side they were beaten by Bayern Munich.

Among many paying tributes this week were Sir Bobby Charlton, former Leeds player Eddie Gray and fellow BBC commentator John Murray, who spoke for most when he termed Armfield “a popular man, a friendly man – the absolute epitome of a football man”.

Having listened to his thoughtful words on many a Saturday afternoon, I would definitely second that.

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The Six Nations rugby championship kicks off a week tomorrow, with Scotland facing a trip to play Wales at Cardiff in the opening round of fixtures.

The task facing the Scots has not been made easier by the current raft of injuries to the front row forwards, with up to eight props and hookers now on the unavailable list.

On the positive side head coach Gregor Townsend will have pretty much a full squad of backs to choose from, with the excellent perfomances against New Zealand and Australia in the autumn tests still fresh in the mind, while the Welsh themselves are facing somewhat of an injury crisis.

Among those missing for the home side will be Sam Warburton, Taulupe Falateau, Jonathan Davies and Dan Lydiate, all of them British Lions, along with fly-halves Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland. There is now a doubt about another Lion, utility back Liam Williams.

A full-strength Wales would have started strong favourites, but even without several of their stars they will still prove a very stiff hurdle to overcome if the Scots are to get off to a winning start.

What Scotland do possess, however, are some of the most exciting attacking players in the northern hemisphere. Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Huw Jones, Finn Russell … the list goes on. Let’s hope they can live up to the high expectations placed on them next weekend.

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Staying with the oval ball, the irritating Matt Dawson has suggested the heavier workload placed on England’s top players in comparison with other countries could cost them dearly at next year’s Rugby World Cup.

The former scrum half, a world cup winner himself, says a number of England internationals have “featured regularly for their clubs” this season following an arduous Lions tour to New Zealand last summer. What a daft statement.

Dawson could take into consideration the fact that England have more than six times the number of players to pick from as Ireland, Wales and Scotland. And not content with that they have just selected Gary Graham, an up-and-coming flanker at Newcastle who has played for Scotland through the age groups.

He could also consider that his country has basically an injury-free front row going into the forthcoming Six Nations championship, whereas the Scots are now down to their fourth choice tighthead prop, third choice loosehead prop and third choice hooker.

For Dawson to suggest that English players play more matches than other nations is both tedious and ignorant.

So far Aviva Premiership clubs have completed 13 matches, exactly the same as Welsh, Irish and Scottish sides in the Guiness Pro 14 championship. They have also all racked up six in either the European Champions Cup or Challenge Cup.

Dawson should cut out the whingeing, and be grateful his country has the kind of strength in depth others can only dream of.


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