WINTER is coming. The march east for one clan has come to a premature end as the cold snap takes hold, the wintry breeze bringing hopes of waging war on a new frontier to a close with the chill of familiar, deathly discontentment.

It is an evening when Scottish eyes will fall upon the King of the North, and not the one necessarily standing in a Pittodrie dug out.

On a dark night in Aberdeen, many natives this evening will look towards Malky Mackay in the home dug out as the pretender to the Scotland throne.

The chance of victory over the Netherlands in a challenge match would certainly do his claim no harm. Yet, the potential heir will be somewhere across the stormy seas, readying himself for another titanic battle for greatness.

“I’m not surprised he’s linked with any job, specifically an international job,” said Motherwell manager Stephen Robinson of Michael O’Neill, whose side host Switzerland tonight in a World Cup play-off against Switzerland in Belfast.

“What he has achieved with Northern Ireland is incredible. He has around 35 players to pick from and not many in the Premier League, maybe only four. If you’re a country like Northern Ireland looking at what he’s done, it’s an amazing achievement. 

“Scotland are a bigger country with a bigger pool of players to pick from and there’s no reason why they won’t go looking for Michael. 

“Whether he chooses that or not is obviously entirely up to him but it’s no surprise that he’s top of the list.”

Robinson is well placed to give an insight into the workings of the man who stands as Mackay’s main rival when it comes to a bookies’ favourite to replace Gordon Strachan.

As well as being fellow countrymen, the leader of the Fir Park house was O’Neill’s assistant through the heroic crusade at last summer’s Euros. With a modest squad built around hard-working youngsters and honest professionals like Steven Davis, Michael McGovern and Josh Magennis, O’Neill masterminded a run all the way to the last 16 in France before falling short to Wales.

“Maybe before the Euros a lot of our players hadn’t played at that level and hadn’t maybe experienced the pressure of it. But I think they’ve more than shown that Michael and the staff have put together that can handle it,” said Robinson.

“They will be relishing it to be honest. I’m sure the Swiss won’t look forward to going to a packed Windsor Park.

“We were sheltered from all the hype quite a lot until the actual game days. There was a lot of security around it at that stage with us stuck away in a chateaux in the mountains somewhere. It wasn’t until we probably went to play in the Ukraine game [their first tournament victory for 34 years with a 2-0 win] that we thought ‘How big is this!’

“There was such a buzz about the place but we were kept away from a lot of the pressure of the whole thing. When we got out there the players handled it terrifically and to do what they did at that level where our boys hadn’t played at, they will relish that opportunity again. They won’t hold any fears.”

The future of the Scotland manager’s job perhaps hinges more on what happens in the Belfast first leg this evening than it does in the bounce game in Aberdeen. 

Edinburgh-based O’Neill has long been linked with taking over at Hampden but it would be difficult to see him abandoning his troops ahead of a trip to Russia when Scotland will remain back at base camp.

However, if the Northern Irish fail to prevail on Sunday, the narrative may well change.

“I think he’s extremely happy where he is,” said Robinson. “The IFA are very good to Michael. We didn’t win a game for 10 games when he was in charge but they stuck by him because they saw what was happening. It’s rare in football that happens. Michael has a lot of loyalty back in that direction and he’s paid that dividend 100 times over. “I can’t speak for

what he’s thinking. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if Scotland were interested in him. It’s a challenge for a massive footballing nation that’s ready to go again and there have been drastic improvements in the last few months. It’s not like you are taking over a team that’s really poor, there are some really, really good players. That might be an attraction to Michael. 

“But he is in love with Northern Ireland. He has a job for life there and it would need to be his decision whether to leave or maybe fancy club football. But I know he is very, very happy doing what he’s doing.”
Robinson decided to give up his assistant manager’s duties whenever he took over at Oldham last year, and admits at being envious as he watches on from his Lanarkshire abode tonight.

“Of course you miss it,” he said. “Being involved with your country at any level is a massive achievement and a huge honour. For Michael to have me involved and to take a lot the coaching side of things was great.

“You have a wee bit of envy at times but I’m happy with where I am at Motherwell.

“Michael is the most meticulous manager I’ve ever seen and worked with. He leaves no stone left unturned and there’s lots of belief and confidence in what he puts together.

“The players have a good camaraderie and belief. Then you have the  fans, I’ve never seen fans like them. They’ve had no success for years and they are loving it at the moment. You put all those ingredients together including the relationship between the players  and the fans, 
it’s a real, real special thing.”