Early in his time at Nottingham Forest, Martin O’Neill became embroiled in a contract dispute with the manager Brian Clough. A local journalist, no doubt primed by the tyrannical club boss, wrote an article castigating the young man for his ingratitude. The gist of the criticism was that somebody who’d been plucked from obscurity should be more thankful for the opportunity he’d been given. O’Neill’s subsequent letter to the editor requested a simple clarification. He’d been plucked, not from obscurity, but from his second year of studying law at Queen’s University, Belfast. Quite a difference.
More than three decades later, O’Neill’s reputation is that of a man who has always known his place and his worth. Like his decision to opt out of the game to tend to his ailing wife Geraldine during her battle with lymphoma 15 months ago, his return as manager of Aston Villa was quick and decisive. He could have waited for the Villa ownership situation to be resolved but that would have most likely meant taking over after the season had begun. By then, the ongoing drama surrounding the Birmingham outfit might have turned into a crisis. Despite the messianic glee with which 1,000 fans greeted his arrival in the Villa Park car park last week, the task of awakening English soccer’s most somnambulant giant is an enormous one.
“I have to admit that I am petrified by the challenge but this is an absolutely fantastic football club and I am raring to go,” said O’Neill. “I’ve got to prove myself to the Villa people that I can do the job. I think I can, but that’s easy talk and it’s not going to be easy. I want to do well and I wouldn’t be sat here if I didn’t. If Aston Villa are to have a bit of success in the coming years I would like be part of that.”
It says much for his pedigree that during his exile, O’Neill was linked with the Ireland, England and Newcastle United jobs. Indeed, many assume the FA’s baffling decision to pick Steve McLaren ahead of the 64-times capped Northern Ireland international had more to do with nationality than qualifications. Whatever the veracity of that, England’s loss may yet turn into Villa’s opportunity as the club have snapped up a manager with a gift for wringing the most out of the talent available to him and a career path like few others.
His first football medal was Gaelic, being part of St. Malachy’s College team that won the MacRory Cup in 1970. Within a year, he scored twice for the Distillery soccer team that won the Irish Cup final. Shortly after the Northern Irish club met Barcelona in the European Cup Winners’ Cup, Forest came calling with an offer to move to England. While at the City Ground, he was part of one European Cup-winning team, captained Northern Ireland at the 1982 World Cup (where they sensationally knocked out the hosts Spain) and earned a reputation for talking back to the dictatorial Clough.
“Ian Bowyer and I were the major piss-takers,” recalled former Forest teammate Kenny Burns. “We would have a go at everybody but with Martin you would count to 10 and be sure that, by two, he would have taken the bait. That’s just the way he was. Even as a player he was uptight and easy to wind -up and I think that has continued into management. Look at the way he acts on the touchline, but that’s not such a bad thing. Players looking at him ought to be thinking ‘we better pull the finger out here, the manager’s angry.'”
The loquacious streak – evident to anybody who has witnessed his punditry work for the BBC over the years – and the undisguised passion are some of the reasons he’s renowned for his man-management skills. Of course, that ability may also be something he honed in a managerial career that began way, way off-Broadway. Having served his apprenticeship at Shepshed Charterhouse, Grantham Town, Wycombe Wanderers, and Norwich City, it was only after moving to Leicester City in 1995 that O’Neill finally garnered national headlines.
Having brought them back to the Premiership, he delivered four successive top-10 finishes and two trophies (albeit the lesser-spotted League Cup). On a shoestring budget, it was an incredible run that inevitably attracted the attention of more glamorous outfits. It wasn’t surprising that Celtic finally persuaded him to leave Leicester. His father had once warned him that if the position at Parkhead was ever offered, he should walk to Glasgow to take it up.
From the moment he told that story, there was about his sojourn in Scotland a certain whiff of romance. The relationship blossomed from the start. His first Old Firm derby was a 6-2 triumph. His first season yielded the Treble. In 2003, an unforgettable European odyssey culminated in a memorable UEFA Cup final defeat by Porto in Seville.
Even if he was blessed with the presence of a supreme goalscorer in Henrik Larsson, O’Neill’s managed to secure three Premiership titles and a host of thrilling Champions’ League occasions by resuscitating the careers of fading stars like John Hartson and Chris Sutton, blending youngsters and journeymen, and, as is his trademark, ensuring the whole was nearly always more than the sum of its individual parts. As he awaits the availability of funds to rebuild, his knack for making a lot from a little will be at a premium.
“Eighteen months ago we were going along pretty okay in our lives, not too bothered,” said O’Neill in July 2005 when he returned to Queen’s University to receive an honorary doctorate. “Then my wife gets lymphoma. And it is a blow; no doubt about it. Then you find out what life is all about and all those moments that you had which you thought were great moments – playing for Nottingham Forest and Northern Ireland – now they’re only distant memories. They don’t really matter. Life is more important. Health is more important.”
That he’s always had a more rounded view of the world than most managers goes without saying. During a Leicester City tour of America back in the ’90s, the boss, who has an interest in criminology, took time out to visit the grassy knoll from where President John F. Kennedy was shot. After satisfying his curiosity there, he hailed a taxi to take him to Lee Harvey Oswald’s old home. The driver didn’t know where the house was or how to get there. From his knowledge of the topic, O’Neill was able to direct him right to the door.