Martin O’Neill is probably the most articulate and thoughtful man to lead the Republic of Ireland. This is in light of the grumblings of Jack Charlton, the colloquial Brian Kerr or the Latin tongue of Giovanni Trappattoni. Yet a career at the bar looked a likely route over that of a professional footballer at the start of the 1970s. Then again maybe by his own admission O’Neill is a lot similar to his predecessors with the Boys in Green stating: “I’m full of anomalies, ironies, paradoxes and downright contradictions.”
Growing up in Kilrea, County Derry, the sixth of nine children, his love of Sunderland and adoration of Cork-born centre-back Charley Hurley is a clear reflection of the tenacity of O’Neill, the player and manager. At St. Malachy’s College, Belfast, he was a part of the side that won the MacRory Cup in Gaelic football in 1970 though his soccer skills did not go unnoticed either. His pursuit of GAA led to conflict with the beautiful game. Due to the GAA’s ban on its members playing ‘foreign sports,’ he was prevented from playing in Casement Park. This was not the only association with Gaelic Games for the O’Neill family, however, as Martin’s older brother Leo had been part of the Derry team which lost to Dublin in the 1958 All-Ireland final.
The O’Neill clan moved to Belfast in 1968 which owed a part to him lining out for Distillery and not his local club Derry City. His decision to plump for soccer which was deemed the “Brits’ game” to some in the Catholic/Nationalist community, was based on the career of another childhood idol, Hungarian Ferenc Puskas.
Three years after moving to the Northern capital, young O’Neill scored in the 1971 Irish Cup final and Europe beckoned. His part-time football career supplemented his law studies at Queen’s University, Belfast which were not without one other major intrusion.
The Soviet Union were in Belfast to play a European Championship qualifier when George Best withdrew from the squad. The opportunity opened for O’Neill to join the team which he found out while playing pinball in the students’ union.
A rush to gather his gear was a welcome surprise after the disappointment of a lacklustre performance for Distillery the previous weekend when he was being scouted by Manchester City. At 19 years of age O’Neill made his international debut when introduced as a substitute in the game which finshed 1-1.
At club level, the Lisburn outfit were drawn to face Catalan giants Barcelona in European competiton. O’Neill scored in the first leg at Windsor Park which ended in a 3-1 defeat. In a virtual empty Camp Nou the Northern Irish side lost four-nil in the return leg. The taste of Europe wetted his appetite for a professional career in the game and when Nottingham Forest offered £15,000 for his services, his legal career was put on the back burner.
Often a law degree is more beneficial to a path into politics and it may have seen a wholly different career unfold for O’Neill like it did for fellow Queen’s classmate Mary Leneghan, more familiar to people as Mary McAleese, the eighth President of Ireland.
After four years with Forest, it appeared that O’Neill’s footballing days were destined for Second Division mediocrity, though more unsettling was the hostility directed towards him in England when the IRA bombing campaign began, not just from the terraces but also briefly in the dressingroom. O’Neill’s career would soar upon the arrival of Brian Clough to the club.
“O’Neill’s Forest teammate during the glory years at the beginning of Clough’s reign, John Robertson described him as the ‘dressingroom lawyer’ with the ability to mix intellect with the ‘capacity to charm the hind legs off a donkey’.”
Though Clough himself is quoted as stating: “I’m wary of people more intelligent than I am,” Duncan Hamilton who aided the iconic manager in his William Hill Sports Book of the Year-winning Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, describes O’Neill as ‘articulate as the great Irish novelist, James Joyce’ admitting ‘Cloughie could never get the better of Martin.’
A rags to riches story akin to Leicester City (who O’Neill would go on to manage with distinction), in the space of four seasons Nottingham Forest achieved promotion to the First Division, won the league title, two league cups and were European Champions in 1979 and 1980. O’Neill did not start in the first final in (losing his place to the first million-pound player Trevor Francis after struggling with injury) but he featured in the following year’s continental showpiece.
By his own admission the majority of O’Neill life has been spent away from the island in which he was raised. He made sixty-four appearances for Northern Ireland and captained them in the 1982 World Cup where they famously defeated hosts Spain one-nil. Two British Championships were earned in heady days for football in the North whose fortunes declined just as their neighbours in the Republic took off.
O’Neill’s move into management saw unprecendented success. First at Wycombe, then Leicester (where two league cups were constituted miracles). Three titles at Celtic and UEFA Cup runners-up made him the most successful manager since Jock Stein. O’Neill was touted once as a replacement to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United in 2002 and was, at one point, interviewed for the England job.
It seems fiiting then that now as manager of the Republic of Ireland, he leads the team to the European Championships where the Boys in Green are joined by Northern Ireland for the first time at a major finals.
It would be difficult to place O’Neill in a grouping whether it’s with Brian Clough or Billy Bingham as a manger or Danny Blanchflower or Keith Gillespie as a player. Perhaps it’s more appropriate to attach his name to a figure like Steve Jobs – genius…and college drop-out.