The teams they are a changing

For the week that’s in it, what could be more appropriate than to address the congregation with a reading from the Book Of Bob?

The teams they are a changing

“The line it is drawn/The curse it is cast/The slowest now will later be fast/ As the present now will later be past/The order is rapidly fading/And the first one now will later be last...”

Altogether now (with apologies to Himself): because the teams they are a changing.

Yes, with only a minor bit of intellectual stretching, he quipped good-naturedly, it’s plain to see Dylan’s supposed anthem for a generation was really a coded prophecy for where two former Celtic managers and their respective national teams would be at 52 years later.

While Ireland’s Martin O’Neill is getting the results which keep him safe from the battles raging outside (and particularly in Montrose), Scotland’s Gordon Strachan is the man around whom the waters have grown and who will have to start swimming if he’s not to sink like a stone.

Which is quite the turnaround from a little over 12 months ago, at which stage in Euro 2016 qualifying Scotland had the edge on Ireland having taken four points from six in games between the sides, results which had Strachan riding high in the critical and popular charts while O’Neill’s stock was at its lowest since taking over the job. There were even, as I recall, some voices calling for the Ireland manager’s head at that point.

But change, as we know, can come very quickly in a sport where you’re only ever as good or bad as your last result. Or, for that matter, you next one.

In football, there’s no rest for the blessed or the wicked.

In Euro qualifying, the big swing day came on September 4, 2015. I was sitting in a hotel room in Faro that afternoon, typing out some deathless prose when, through the open windows, I heard Irish voices roaring in celebration: the whistle had just blown in Tbilisi and the Scots, in keeping with their great tradition of spectacular self- destruction, had blown it too, going down 1-0 to our old friends Georgia. A couple of hours later, Ireland were cruising to a 4-0 victory over Gibraltar and, all of a sudden, the road to France had opened up again for Martin O’Neill’s men.

Of course, it would still take a staggering victory over world champions Germany and a mature, controlled performance in a two-legged play-off against Bosnia to get Ireland over the line. But, for the Scots, despite a couple of battling performances in losing narrowly to the Germans and drawing with Poland, the damage had been done with that defeat in Tbilisi, the ultimate outcome once more proving the Zim’s footballing prescience in noting that “he who gets hurt will be he who has stalled”.

So while, a heavy defeat to Belgium aside, Ireland went on to even greater things in France, Scotland – alone of the home nations – had time on their hands in the summer before hitting the ground running on their return to international action with a 5-1 spanking of Malta in their opening World Cup qualifier.

Since when things have very quickly gone from bad to worse to, in the eyes of many, untenable for Gordon Strachan, as his side followed up a limp 1-1 draw at home to Lithuania with a 3-0 humbling away to Slovakia. Many of those who were reasonably content to see him stay at the helm even after failure to qualify for the Euros, have now decided that enough is enough. One opinion piece in The Guardian last week not only unceremoniously ripped into the manager - “he actually owes it to his country to step down” - but virtually demanded, hot on the heels of giving him the order of the boot if he chose not to go voluntarily, the Scottish FA should look to poach Michael O’Neill from our friends in the North as a matter of urgency.

All this with the Scots still only three points behind leaders England in Group F and a showdown between the two coming up at Wembley on November 11. Yesterday, it was revealed Strachan will stay on as manager, at least until then. As well he might, since if the Scots could put one over on the ‘Auld Enemy’ on their home turf, the result would not only overnight see the gaffer revert from mess to Messiah but, given his spiky relationship with the dreaded meeja, make for some compelling post-match entertainment.

Just a little over 12 months since he found himself walking in Strachan’s shoes, the situation is radically different for Martin O’Neill. Park, for one day, debate about the manner in which he has achieved all he has achieved as Ireland manager, and the report card makes for hugely impressive reading. Before O’Neill, Irish football had been haunted for 14 years by a failure to emulate let alone eclipse that famous 1-0 win over the Netherlands at Lansdowne Road in 2001 but, since his arrival, we’ve taken four points from six against the world champions Germany, beaten Bosnia – the highest ranked team in the play-offs – to qualify for the Euro finals and, once in France, put the gibbering ghosts of 2012 to bed by drawing with Sweden, beating Italy and giving the hosts a right run for their money in the round of 16. And now, despite so many misgivings about the performance levels, after three more positive results - two wins and a draw - in World Cup qualifying, unbeaten Ireland are joint top of a testing group with Serbia.

Next up for the Irish is Austria in Vienna, a day after the Scots take on England, a big 24 hours for the two former Celtic bosses, the one with everything to gain, the other with nothing to lose. But in the week in which he got the Nobel call, I’ll leave the last word to Mr D and his advice to “writers and critics who prophesise with your pen” to “Keep your eyes wide, the chance won’t come again/And don’t speak too soon for the wheels still in spin/And there’s no telling who that it’s naming/For the loser now will be later to win...”

He knew his football alright.

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