Scotland eye Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill

Northern Ireland face a huge battle to keep hold of in-demand manager Michael O’Neill after the Scottish Football Association yesterday made an official approach for the Armagh man.

O’Neill has emerged as the leading contender to replace Gordon Strachan after guiding his team to the second round of Euro 2016 and the recent World Cup play-offs. The ball is now in the court of the Irish Football Association, which has O’Neill under contract until the end of the next European Championship campaign.

The Hampden move has come soon after Northern Ireland narrowly missed out on their first World Cup finals appearance since 1986 following a controversial two-legged defeat by Switzerland.

Former Hibernian and Dundee United midfielder O’Neill lives in Edinburgh and began his managerial career with Brechin, before taking Shamrock Rovers to the Europa League group stages.

The former Newcastle player signed a new contract with Northern Ireland in March last year, which takes him to June 2020.

Sunderland and the United States have been linked with a move for the 48-year-old, as have Rangers who say they will draw up a shortlist for their own vacancy next week.

O’Neill, who is approaching his sixth anniversary as Northern Ireland manager, refused to discuss his future after his side’s goalless draw in Basel on Sunday, which sealed a 1-0 aggregate loss following Switzerland’s dubious penalty goal in Belfast.

‘’No, I haven’t even considered that,’’ he said. “Tonight is about being with my players, spending time with them and making sure they are OK.

‘’As I said to the players themselves, there is no need to make any rash decisions on anything they want to do.”

O’Neill’s Northern Ireland assistants are also based in Scotland.

Scot Austin MacPhee is assistant manager at Hearts while Jimmy Nicholl is working at Falkirk.

Malky Mackay took charge of Scotland in a friendly defeat by Holland last week but SFA chief executive Stewart Regan had already ruled him out of the running to succeed Strachan on a long-term basis.

Scotland’s next match is likely to be in March with talks taking place over a friendly in Morocco.

Meanwhile Italy have sacked coach Gian Piero Ventura following their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

The Italian Football Federation announced in a statement on Wednesday night that the 69-year-old’s 16-month reign was over.

Italy lost their play-off for a place in Russia next summer 1-0 on aggregate to Sweden, the first time since 1958 the Azzurri have failed to qualify for a World Cup.

The Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio said the decision to dismiss Ventura was taken at a meeting called by FIGC president Carlo Tavecchio. The move was widely expected following Italy’s goalless draw with the Sweden in Milan on Monday. Ventura, who had been under contract until 2020, declined to resign in the immediate aftermath of the match, but the FIGC has now taken the decision out of his hands.

He labelled the outcome of the play-off a “terrible result” and apologised to the Italian supporters. Ventura, a journeyman coach who had most recently spent five years in charge of Torino, took over from Antonio Conte as national team boss following their penalty shoot-out defeat to Germany in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016.

He had to get the better of Spain to secure automatic qualification for the World Cup, though, a task which proved too tough as Italy finished the group five points behind their rivals. But it is the two games against Sweden, a side ranked 10 places below Italy, which have cost him his job.

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