London – Blink, and you might have missed the part Shepshed Charterhouse, in the puddles and potholes of the Northern Premier League, played in the professional life of Martin O’Neill, back in the days when aspiring managers were prepared to start at the bottom and learn the hard way.
O’Neill’s first steps in management were actually with Grantham Town, grubbing around for points in the then Beazer Homes League, Midlands Division, a couple of rungs below the Conference. O’Neill arranged the deal at a bed-and-breakfast on the A52 and had a five-year plan in place until he ended up falling out with the chairman and, still in situ, found his job being advertised in the Nottingham Evening Post. Shepshed were next but O’Neill’s time at the Dovecote was distinguished only by how quickly he came and went. The unofficial website for what is now Shepshed Dynamo summed it up rather neatly: “1989 – July – appointed Martin O’Neill as manager. October – sacked Martin O’Neill as manager. Wonder what became of him.”
In fact, O’Neill was not sacked and the truth makes for an even better story. O’Neill, like many ex-pros of that time, had been embarking on a career in insurance, working in the offices of Save & Prosper while his old pal and team-mate, John Robertson, his No2 at Shepshed, was out on the road trying to drum up business. It is a situation that could never happen now: two European Cup winners adjusting to a nine-to-five office job. The problem was combining that with trying to run a football team. “On one occasion we were almost late getting to a midweek match against Frickley Colliery in south Yorkshire,” Robertson recalls. It was obvious it could not continue that way and O’Neill gave up Shepshed to concentrate on Save & Prosper.
It is a great story bearing in mind what we know now, almost 30 years on, about his list of achievements, most recently as manager of the Republic of Ireland, the conveyor belt of players who speak about him in awe and the unmistakable sense, more than anything, that they will give absolutely everything they have to get his approval.
My first professional dealings with O’Neill came at Leicester City – the club where, I always maintain, he put together his most outstanding work. O’Neill had taken over in the same week that I had moved to the city and, as a young agency reporter putting out the old rotary-dial telephones in the pressbox, it was a marvel to see, up‑close, how much the players and fans at Filbert Street disliked him when he took over and how, by the end, he had the entire city dancing to his tune.
O’Neill faced down the makings of a dressing-room mutiny and transformed a second-tier team in such an invigorating way the people of Leicester, pre-2016, could have been forgiven for wondering whether it would ever get any better. There were four top-10 finishes after securing promotion with virtually the final kick of O’Neill’s first season, in the 1996 play-off final. His team reached three League Cup finals, winning two, and lifted their first silverware since 1964. They went to Anfield four times, won three and drew the other.
Everyone remembers Dennis Bergkamp’s improvisational brilliance for his hat-trick goal at Leicester in August 1997. What tends to be forgotten is that it came in the third minute of stoppages and O’Neill’s team still found the time to conjure up the final goal of a 3-3 draw. Bergkamp left the pitch that night shaking his head in disbelief and that, in a nutshell, was the O’Neill effect. In all the years since, it is difficult to recall more than a handful of teams with such a spirit of togetherness.
It certainly wasn’t a surprise to see Ireland qualifying, at the expense of Wales, for a place in Tuesday’s draw for the World Cup play-offs and there have been so many other examples of O’Neill’s expertise in the interim years it does feel slightly unfair, perhaps, that he has never been given a chance to manage one of the Premier League’s elite clubs.
It tends to be forgotten, for example, that there was once a time when O’Neill was the overwhelming favorite to take over from Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. O’Neill was managing Celtic at the time, where he won seven trophies and reached the Uefa Cup final, and the Manchester press corps still talk about the 2003 press conference before the two teams played a pre-season fixture in Seattle. When O’Neill was asked about replacing Ferguson he answered with great diplomacy bearing in mind the man himself was directly to his left. Yet the journalist who asked the question was already feeling a pair of Glaswegian eyes boring into his skull. “Don’t worry about him,” Ferguson whispered to O’Neill, quietly enough not to be heard by his audience but loud enough to be picked up by the tapes. Ferguson always sounded extra Glaswegian and talked a little bit quicker when his temper had been roused.
All good fun. The problem for O’Neill if he did fancy that job was that Ferguson – “The Man Who Couldn’t Retire,” as the Daily Telegraph called him – stayed for another 10 years and when United did finally need a new manager, in May 2013, it was two months after “Squire”, as he is still known by his old Nottingham Forest team-mates (a nod to his university background), had been sacked for the only time in his career. Even the most accomplished managers tend to have one club on their CV where it goes wrong. For O’Neill, his spell in the managerial wasteland of Sunderland came at the worst possible time.
What is more surprising, perhaps, is that his four years at Aston Villa are not remembered more fondly by their supporters. Villa finished 11th, up from 16th, in his first campaign and then sixth in each of O’Neill’s last three seasons at the club, qualifying for Europe and, in 2010, reaching a Wembley final. They improved their points total every season and in his second campaign they scored more times, 71, than they had since winning the league a quarter of a century before. The 1980-81 team managed 72 – but that was over 42 games, not 38.
The call won’t come now, though. O’Neill recently agreed a two-year extension to his contract with Ireland. He will be 68 when it expires and he might just have to accept that some of the elite clubs could be put off by his team’s lack of artistic merit.
Equally, take a close look at the squad before questioning why Ireland don’t pass the ball more elegantly. Eighteen of the players O’Neill called up for the Wales game were from teams in the Championship, whereas only 11 came from top-division clubs. Of those, only three played for teams that finished in the top half of the Premier League last season. Where Roy Keane once patrolled, it is now David Meyler of Hull City. For Robbie Keane, it is Daryl Murphy of Nottingham Forest. James McClean is now probably Ireland’s best player. He will run until he drops and his goal against Wales was taken beautifully – but, as wingers go, he is hardly in the class of Liam Brady. Or even Damien Duff. Is it any wonder the opposition often have more of the ball?
The point is there are all sorts of ways to win a football match. O’Neill won the European Cup for a side whose backs-to-the-wall operation against Hamburg in the 1980 final was denounced in the German press as “Blitzkrieg football” and described by Brian Glanville in the Sunday Times as “tactical cowardice”. Do you think Clough cared when he had the trophy on top of his television? And would you imagine O’Neill will worry about the unrealistic snobbery if he makes it to Russia next summer with one of the least distinguished groups of Irish players for some time?
For now, O’Neill’s CV is the best response. It always was. Robertson remembers what his mate was like in the world of insurance. “By his own admission, Martin’s knowledge of the financial services we were trying to sell was not the best. But he came across as though he knew the business inside out.”
The Guardian Sport