The Idiot on the Right
The tempestuous playing career of the Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill
Once upon a time, Martin O’Neill was a footballer of some success.
Before he was taking Republic of Ireland to Euro 2016, before he was linked with England, Manchester United and Liverpool, before he was leading Aston Villa to three consecutive sixth-place finishes, before he was winning the treble in his first season as Celtic manager and taking them to the Uefa Cup final, before he was getting Leicester City promoted to the Premier League and guiding them to two League Cup wins, before he was falling out with the Norwich chairman Robert Chase, O’Neill was a midfielder – either industrious or gifted depending on which of his managers you asked.
O’Neill has been a manager for 29 years – 14 more years than he was a player - and today a large generation of football fans know him best for his tracksuits-and-rolled-up-socks style of management, the sparky fella with the quick quip and droll put-down.
Yet, from 1970 until 1985, he won a European Cup, won Division One, twice won the League Cup, scored against Barcelona for Distillery when he was 19, captained the Northern Ireland side that shocked Spain at their own World Cup, was a scourge of sports editors, a crime-case enthusiast and ‘Clever Bollocks’ to Brian Clough.
Before he was defined by his managerial career, O’Neill was, for a brief time, one of the most famous footballers in Europe. And his story begins at a run-down ground in west Belfast during the Troubles, as Barcelona came to town.
“The 77th minute saw 19-year-old Martin O’Neill produce a moment of sheer magic. He tried a one-two with [Martin] Donnelly, but the return pass was played behind him. Somehow O’Neill managed to stretch back, drag it forward, and strike it in one swift stunning movement. It rocketed into the net off the base of the post, with the keeper staring in disbelief – it was a real masterpiece.” The Whites: A History of Distillery Football Club
O’Neill’s eye-bulging goal against Barcelona at Distillery’s Grosvenor Park on 15 September 1971 in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup was when life changed for him. There had been no sense of destiny, no sense of certainty that he was going to pursue a career in football. He was studying law at Queen’s University while playing for Distillery – criminology would become a lifelong obsession – and his mum Greta had been keen for him to complete his studies rather than have his head turned by offers from clubs in England.
The sixth of nine children, O’Neill was born and raised in Kilrea, County Derry, less than 50 miles north-west of Belfast. His early life was on a gentle council estate, supporting Celtic and also following Sunderland because the Irish defender Charlie Hurley played for them. His family was Catholic in a Protestant neighbourhood but it caused little trouble for them in the 1950s. When he wasn’t at school (which “did not involve Protestants or girls,” he later joked) or plonked in a chair at his dad Leo’s barber shop, he was playing sport. Football. Cricket. Tennis. Gaelic football. He was good at them all.
Young Martin was a tad stubborn, a tad obsessive. When he heard that Ferenc Puskás could perform 200 keepy-uppies with a tennis ball, O’Neill religiously practised the same trick. Within weeks, he had matched Puskás. He was very bright academically and boarded at St Columb’s Christian Brothers in Derry – where the Nobel Prize winners Seamus Heaney and John Hume were educated – before he went on to St Malachy’s College in Belfast for his A-Levels: A in Ancient History, Bs in Latin and English Literature.
It was there that his fledgling sporting career reached a crossroads. He was playing Gaelic football for the college (the sport was in the family – his dad had founded Kilrea Gaelic Athletic Association) and football for Distillery, who were managed by the former Portsmouth, Stoke and Southend forward Jimmy McAlinden. O’Neill’s appearances for Distillery caused some controversy at the time, as the Gaelic Athletic Association wasn’t keen on its members playing association football: it was seen as a British sport.
O’Neill was undeterred. At 18 he had made his Distillery debut in November 1970, scoring the opening goal in a 3-2 win at Portadown. He quickly established himself as the team’s star player, with a free role as an inside-forward, and his first chance really to shine came on 3 April 1971.
It was the Irish Cup final: Distillery v Derry, Windsor Park. 6,000 turned up to watch at an unusual kick-off time of 3.45pm. Derry hadn’t won the Cup for 15 years and O’Neill gave them a great start by opening the scoring, slotting into the bottom corner after a free-kick was flicked on.
Three minutes after half-time O’Neill doubled the lead with a memorable goal. The Belfast Telegraph was full of praise: “O’Neill beat three men with a mazy run, actually changed feet and hit the ball hard into the net. A goal that was breathtaking and spectacular… it will long be remembered by the fans. No wonder almost a dozen cross-channel clubs have made enquiries about him.” After the match, which Distillery won 3-0, O’Neill was slightly less gushing: “I thought I had muffed the final shot. That was a horrible moment, but I am looking forward to seeing it all again on television tonight.”
With Manchester United and Arsenal among those clubs watching O’Neill, he soon had another opportunity to give the scouts an even bigger come-get-me wave. Distillery’s Cup win had sent them into Europe and they had been drawn against Barcelona.
It didn’t quite have the same effect in Belfast as might be expected if Barcelona turned up there today. This was by no means a classic Barça side – they hadn’t won La Liga since 1960 – and it was at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland: not many neutral supporters ventured out for the game. The ground was in an area of shootings, violence and rioting, and plenty of Distillery home games had to be moved. The chairman Denis Moore had hoped for 3,000, but 2,000 turned up.
Dawson Simpson, who wrote The Whites: A History of Distillery Football Club, was at Grosvenor Park for Barcelona’s arrival. They might have been used to more glamorous surroundings. “It was a small compact ground in the middle of a built-up area of west Belfast,” Simpson says. “It was surrounded by houses on one side and one goal end, with a factory behind the other goal end. There was a wooden grandstand on one side. The grandstand seating area was rows of wooden benches and banked concrete terracing about 10 tiers deep was around the rest of the ground. There was a low concrete wall around the pitch, about six feet from the playing area.”
It was in these inauspicious surroundings, with crumbling terracing and damaged crowd barriers, that O’Neill’s football career took off; where any thoughts of pursuing Gaelic football or studying Law were squashed.
Barcelona, predictably, dominated from the start. They forced five corners in the opening five minutes, and Ramón Alfonseda and Juan Manuel Asensi put Barcelona 2-0 up after 57 minutes. Then, in the 77th minute, came O’Neill’s moment. Thirty-two years before he would manage Celtic to a famous triumph over Barcelona, here was his first taste of European glory: with Miguel Reina rooted, O’Neill’s driving shot from outside the area was one small step for Distillery, one giant leap for Martin O’Neill.
Distillery lost 3-1, but all the talk after the game was of the wonder-goal. It was clear O’Neill’s head had been turned towards England: “It would be great to be a part of the big time. That is what I really want. Playing against Barcelona this week was such a tremendous experience.”
O’Neill impressed again in front of a 14,000-crowd in the return leg at the Camp Nou on September 29. Distillery were hammered 4-0 – Marcial Pina scoring all four – but O’Neill didn’t look out of place, with Simpson noting he made “several electrifying runs, including one in which he calmly waltzed past five opponents”.
14 days later O’Neill was back at Windsor Park. He wasn’t playing for Distillery this time, though. This was a step up. This was his debut for Northern Ireland. Aged 19, he came on to replace Bryan Hamilton – a former Distillery player – against the USSR in a European Cup qualifier, which finished 1-1. Alongside him were the likes of Pat Rice and Pat Jennings, Jimmy Nicholson and Derek Dougan.
A week later, as if 1971 couldn’t get any better for O’Neill, he left university. After all, you couldn’t carry on studying in Belfast when you had to move to England to join Nottingham Forest, could you?
“I remember being at Nottingham Forest when Tommy Gemmell came down and I said to him, and you know I was in awe of him, ‘That was some goal in the European Cup Final.’ He replied, ‘Which one, son?’ And, you know, he was right.’” Martin O’Neill
When Tommy Gemmell arrived at Forest, a month after O’Neill had joined, he brought the kind of glamour that a young player might have expected of England’s top division. Scorer of goals in two European Cup finals for Celtic, Gemmell was actually just masking tape as Forest desperately tried to halt a rapid decline. They were a shadow of the side that had finished second in 1966-67 on the back of Ian Storey-Moore’s goals and fashionable haircut (he would hang around until March 1972, when he joined Manchester United – the Forest secretary and former Yorkshire cricketer Ken Smales refused to sell him to Brian Clough at Derby).
But the boy from Distillery knew he had to make the move. The pull of England was strong and Forest were very keen; O’Neill was also concerned if he didn’t move after grabbing the limelight in the Irish Cup and against Barcelona, another chance may not come. He flew to Birmingham with McAlinden and drove to Nottingham to sign. Although it was only five years since England’s World Cup triumph and George Best was filling the gossip columns, football was trying its best to resist the whiff of glamour. Terraces were still thick with cigarette smoke and smelt of urine, while Forest’s County Ground was a dilapidated tin shell, a hint of the future offered by the Main Stand which had been rebuilt following a fire in 1968. It was coal-mining country and strikes were the pervading narrative in the local newspapers, not the local football clubs.
O’Neill had to wait for his chance, watching as Forest lost 10 of their opening 17 matches in 1971-72. Their 18th match, at home against West Brom, would be O’Neill’s debut. Forest were bottom of the table, but O’Neill came on and, as he had for Distillery, scored on his debut as Forest won 4-1.
He slowly worked his way into the consciousness of the national media with his industry and trickery. Tom German of the Times was impressed by him in a 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford, where O’Neill came on as a 65th-minute substitute for John Robertson: “This 19-year-old Irishman, with a direct style and perceptive eye for the target, had hardly got the feel of his surroundings before he had driven the ball through a clutch of retreating red shirts and past [Alex] Stepney”.
O’Neill’s life as a first-division footballer was brief: only five more wins followed the 4-1 defeat of WBA and Forest were relegated. Worse still, Derby, under Clough, were winning their first Division One title.
Relegation, which would become as much a theme of O’Neill’s playing career as winning trophies, meant Forest were drifting into obscurity. O’Neill, playing on the right wing or as an inside-right in the WM formation, enjoyed playing under Matt Gillies and Dave Mackay in Division Two, but neither managers lasted long. It was when Allan Brown came in as manager in to replace Mackay – who had moved down the A52 to join Derby following Clough and Peter Taylor’s surprise resignations – that O’Neill encountered his first hiccups.
Brown, a Scot who’d played much of his career alongside Stanley Matthews at Blackpool, had arrived from Bury in November 1973. O’Neill was in and out of the side as Forest continued to struggle with life in Division Two and Brown would often rebuke him. O’Neill believed Brown had taken an instant dislike to him because of his education; although O’Neill was a popular figure in the dressing room – his energy and enthusiasm was infectious, and he loved to relay information about horse-racing – Brown was suspicious of his sharp tongue and his willingness, and sometimes over-willingness, to speak his mind. It was to become another recurring theme in O’Neill’s career.
Brown took the step of fining O’Neill for speaking to the media after he’d been subbed in one match – Brown claimed the fine was for speaking without permission, but O’Neill believed it was just another way of getting at him. That certainly wasn’t the first time O’Neill had spoken to the press. He was savvy with journalists, providing good quotes and not shy of talking himself up.
O’Neill showed his flair for writing – and perhaps his loss to the legal profession – when Harry Richards, the sports editor of the Nottingham Evening Post, criticised him in his column. Not a good idea. The thrust was that O’Neill was making a “song and dance” about not getting enough game time and that he should be grateful he was playing football in England. O’Neill did not take this kindly.
With no Twitter to take to, O’Neill wrote a letter to Richards, who published it in the newspaper: “Dear Mr Richards. Since I received a ‘letter’ from you, albeit through the Evening Post, I thought it proper that you should have a reply, so I shall not disappoint you. You claimed I made a ‘song and dance’ about a seemingly trifling affair, yet you found the matter sufficiently interesting to devote a column to it. What were you trying to tell me, Mr Richards? It is certainly your prerogative to criticise from the footballing aspect – although I wonder how many games you have seen this season – but I got the distinct impression from the tone of your article that my position in life prior to being with Nottingham Forest was in question. I am grateful to the club for giving me a chance, but I was ‘plucked’ from law studies at Queen’s University, Belfast, not from the queue at the Labour Exchange. To use your own words, Mr Richards, it’s a ‘cold, cruel world’. Your sincerely, Martin O’Neill.”
With O’Neill battling with the both press and manager, it’s no surprise that he often put in transfer requests. O’Neill called working under Brown his “dark days” when “despair set in.” He wanted out. And when Brown was sacked in January 1975 following a 2-0 home defeat to Notts County, with Forest six points above the two relegation places, O’Neill still felt his place was elsewhere.
Then, in walked Brian Clough.
"Brian Clough arrived in January of 1975 and changed all of our lives. John Robertson, myself, Tony Woodcock, Viv Anderson, Ian Bowyer – people like this. All of us. It was a golden period for us. I am not even sure that Clough, setting out, would have envisaged what we achieved. The sort of success we got was incredible." Martin O’Neill
Fifteen months after walking out on Derby, and just four months after his inglorious sacking by Leeds, Clough turned up at Nottingham Forest in his Mercedes and told reporters that “there is only one thing in the club’s favour now. It’s got me.”
He wasn’t quite right – O’Neill, Robertson, Boywer, Woodcock and Anderson were all there, waiting to be moulded into greats – but Clough’s summation in his autobiography revealed the sorry state Forest had got themselves into: “The club was languishing near the foot of the Second Division [they were in 13th] after just nine wins, with the season almost two thirds over. Home crowds averaged around 12,000. Fine players like Martin O’Neill and John Robertson were on the bloody transfer list. The club was rotting on and off the field.”
With Clough’s pockets heavy from the “fuck you” money – as he called it – provided by the Leeds pay-off, he was content and determined to restore a reputation forged down the road at Derby. It was to be the start of something remarkable for Forest and also a wonderful but fraught few years for O’Neill. Like Brown, Clough didn’t take easily to O’Neill’s education, nor his ability to give as good as he got when it came to arguments. In Provided You Don't Kiss Me, Duncan Hamilton – who reported on Forest for the Nottingham Evening Post throughout all of Clough’s years as manager – calls O’Neill, “the most intelligent and articulate footballer – in fact one of the most intelligent and articulate people – I’ve ever met”.
Despite the friction, O’Neill recognised that, unlike Brown, Clough was an outstanding manager – and it was difficult to hold too much of a grudge against someone who brought the team success.
Their relationship started well. On Clough’s first day at the club, he made it clear that “young O’Neill”, as he then called him, was part of his plans. He picked him for his first game, an FA Cup third-round replay at Tottenham on January 8. Spurs were 17th in Division One at the time, but Neil Martin gave Forest a 1-0 win. It was a false dawn, however. Clough’s magic, which appeared to have slipped away at Brighton and then deserted him at Leeds, showed no sign of returning as Forest won only three of their remaining 21 matches that season. They finished 16th.
Despite bringing in Frank Clark at left-back, and Tom Curran to add pace on the right, Forest’s improvement was minimal the following season, finishing 8th after a late-season surge. Things changed when Peter Taylor left his role as Brighton manager to join Clough at Forest in July 1975. A serious knee injury to Curran, suffered in a home win over Burnley early in the season, opened up an opportunity for O’Neill. It’s when Clough’s lopsided 4-4-2 really clicked, with Robertson pushed up high on the left and O’Neill tucked in on the right. O’Neill became something of a patsy for the overlapping Anderson, and although O’Neill felt his gifts should have given him a berth in central midfield, he was finally getting an extended run in the side.
As Forest picked up momentum and chased promotion, O’Neill found it impossible to please Clough, who called him “the idiot on the right side” and “Clever Bollocks” – and they certainly weren’t meant affectionately. O’Neill would often threaten to give up football and return to his law studies during disagreements; Clough would retort by telling him he’d buy his plane ticket to Belfast.
As much as Clough belittled O’Neill, he lionised Robertson. Clough’s initial assessment of Robertson was of a man who was “possibly ten pounds overweight, indisputably the slowest player in the Football League… He was fat, often unshaven, dressed like a tramp, and smoked one fag after another.” But he turned him into one of Europe’s most dangerous players. Although the constant praise heaped on Robertson grated with O’Neill, there was no rivalry between the wingers. Robertson the tubby cigarette smoker, O’Neill the fit crime obsessive; very different characters but very firm friends.
In Daniel Taylor’s I Believe In Miracles, O’Neill summed up his yin and yang on-pitch relationship with Robertson: “John would get the ball on the left and my job was to try to get to the back post for any crosses coming in. If John checked back, rather than going down the line, that meant I had to check back. I’d be doing all these runs back and forwards – doggies, we called them – and I’d be every bit as tired as they were the other side. I just hadn’t touched the ball. So I would be thinking: ‘Do you think, just once, someone might turn this way?’ We could literally go 13 or 14 minutes without the ball coming to the right.”
O’Neill was frequently left exasperated by watching the ball head out to the left and, in his foreword to Robertson’s autobiography, tells a story of letting Clough know at half-time against Leeds in 1979 that he was tired of all of Forest’s attacking play going down the opposite wing to his. Clough, his face a couple of yards from O’Neill’s, shot back with, “And so it should go down the left-hand side. Because that lad’s a bloody genius.”
Despite O’Neill’s frustration at his role, the lopsided formation was working. Forest won the Anglo-Scottish Cup with a 5-1 two-legged win over Leyton Orient, O’Neill playing in both matches. It was a competition that few showed much interest in or love for, but it was the club’s first silverware since the FA Cup win in 1959 and Clough would later say it was the catalyst for what followed. Forest finished the season in third place – the final promotion spot.
Forest were promoted and O’Neill was back in the big time.
He had contributed 11 goals to Forest’s promotion, had worked tirelessly on the right – defender Colin Barrett called him the lungs of the team – and his popularity with the fans was confirmed when he came second to Woodcock in the supporters’ player of the season vote. There was, though, insecurity in success: O’Neill admitted he spent pre-season worrying about the step-up in quality Forest would face and looking out for new signings that might replace him in the team. But his starting place was assured when Curran fell out with Taylor and was loaned out to Bury.
Most newspaper predictions shared O’Neill’s worries and forecast relegation for Forest. But they raised eyebrows on the opening day of the season, away at Everton. O’Neill scored the third – knocking in a parried Robertson drive – as Forest won 3-1. They won their next two games – including a 3-0 home win over Derby – and a season of surprise was up and running. But it wasn’t until two matches either side of Christmas Day that O’Neill really started to believe they might have a shot at the title.
They were already top of the table on December 17, but a 4-0 win at Old Trafford turned them into title favourites rather than interlopers. The Times reported that Forest “switched the ball around with speed and dexterity, channeling men forward to join the attack at exhilarating pace. Robertson and O’Neill gave Manchester a roasting on the flanks”. They followed that up with a 1-1 home draw with third-placed Liverpool, and from then on they were unstoppable. They beat Arsenal 2-0 and Chelsea 3-0 as they won the title by seven points.
It wasn’t their only silverware. They had won the League Cup in March – O’Neill playing in the 0-0 draw at Wembley and the 1-0 win in the replay at Old Trafford. According to Provided You Don't Kiss Me, Brian Appleby’s chairman’s report at the end of the season consisted of just two photos: one of the Division One trophy, one of the League Cup.
Once again O’Neill came second in the supporters’ player of the season award, this time behind Kenny Burns, and he had contributed eight league goals. He was 26 and his best years should still have been ahead of him. But his fractious relationship with Clough continued to sour his experience at Forest.
O’Neill was justified in his belief that he rubbed Clough up the wrong way. In the Charity Shield game against Ipswich ahead of the 1978-79 season, O’Neill had scored twice and was keen for a Wembley hat-trick. Clough had other ideas, replacing him with David Needham – a centre-half. O’Neill was disappointed and suspected it was because he’d turned his back on Clough during a pre-season game: Clough would never forget a rebuke. Another time, when O’Neill had faced a period out of the team, he asked Clough why he was playing in the second team. Clough, in front of everyone at training, told him it was because he was too good for the third team.
Despite the bickering relationship, Clough clearly rated O’Neill – only Robertson, Burns and Peter Withe made more appearances than O’Neill in 1977-78. Clough told Duncan Hamilton that he respected O’Neill, but found him to be a “smart-arse”. O’Neill often used words that Clough didn’t understand. Later, when O’Neill was managing Wycombe, Clough, with tongue in cheek, told Hamilton: “I decided to handle [O’Neill] by pretending he was thick. I thought that way I might just shut him up. Of course, it didn’t always work, ’cos here was a bloke capable of talking for Ireland. One day he’ll be manager of this club [Forest], and I’m going to buy the biggest dictionary I can find, pick out a few words he doesn’t know, and when he invites me over for a beer I’m going to drop them into the conversation. I want to see his eyes roll.”
O’Neill’s biggest disappointment in a Forest shirt wasn’t down to Clough’s attitude. It was down to his team selection. Their staggering run to the final of the 1979 European Cup was O’Neill at his best: tenacious, intelligent and unrelenting down the right. He scored in the quarter-final against Grasshoppers and, after a backs-to-the-wall 1-0 win in the second leg of the semi-final against Cologne, he looked down at his hand after he came off the pitch and noticed it was a bloody mess. He’d been bitten by the midfielder Herbert Neumann.
Ahead of the final against Malmö, O’Neill had been struggling with a hamstring injury after taking a hit on the thigh against Manchester City. He travelled with the team to Munich and with Archie Gemmill and Frank Clark also carrying niggles, it came down to the three of them vying for one place, with Trevor Francis, who had recently become England’s first million-pound footballer, guaranteed to start. Clough made the three players wait, telling them his decision on the morning of the game: Clark was in.
Gemmill raged, but O’Neill, unusually, fell silent and stayed that way on the team bus to the ground. He was in shock.
O’Neill celebrated the 1-0 win – Francis scoring the winner – with the team, but he couldn’t help but think his one chance to add a European medal to his domestic honours had gone. Winning a second successive League Cup trophy was little consolation, while finishing second in the league, eight points off Liverpool, only added to his gloom. The realisation sunk in that he had missed his shot at European glory.
Of course, O’Neill hadn’t banked on the extraordinary powers of Clough. While Forest’s league form stuttered in 1979-80, their extraordinary European run continued. Almost a year to the day from the triumph in Munich, Forest headed to the Bernabéu with the chance for back-to-back titles. Their opponents this time were Hamburg and, unlike the previous year, Forest were the underdogs. While they attacked Malmö from the start, here the plan was to hit Hamburg on the break.
This time, there was no hamstring injury. O’Neill was playing. He had a shot at European glory after all.
In the 20th minute, at 0-0, the ITV commentator Brian Moore sums up the opening stages of the match: “It’s a fairly constant pattern at the moment of Nottingham Forest backing off and soaking up punishment and the Hamburg side continue to have much of the game.”
At that moment, O’Neill picks up the ball on the right in his own half, advances to the half-way line where he knocks it on to John McGovern. O’Neill quickly gets it back on halfway, dribbling forward 10 yards before turning back and finding Frank Gray in space in the centre circle. Gray surges forward, with O’Neill dropping back to occupy the space Gray has left, and Gray knocks the ball in to Gary Mills. He’s tackled, the ball bobbling out to Robertson on the left. He cuts inside, beats Manfred Kaltz and plays a one-two with Garry Birtles on the edge of the area, before bending the ball low around Rudi Kargus from outside the box. 1-0.
Somehow, despite savage Hamburg pressure, Forest hold on for the win. Nine years after scoring against Barcelona for Distillery in the European Cup Winners’ Cup, O’Neill has had a hand in the goal that wins the European Cup.
Of course, this being a team managed by Clough, the drama didn’t end there. O’Neill, Robertson, Burns and Larry Lloyd ignored team orders not to celebrate the win with their partners. Clough, despite having just won back-to-back European Cups, was outraged. Robertson says in his autobiography that Clough threatened to “knock your fucking head off”, while Clough wrote: “I was so incensed that I decided to confiscate their winners’ medals. Can you imagine the outcry that would have caused back home? I would have had the FA, the League, the players’ union, perhaps even the House of Commons gunning for me! After giving it a lot of thought, I opted for fining them a few quid apiece. The principle was the same. And they had to pay up.”
It was a typical Cloughian ending to the pinnacle of O’Neill’s playing career. It was also his last great moment in a Forest shirt. Within eight months O’Neill was gone.
I've always said that my happiest days in football were spent at Norwich," Martin O’Neill, 1995
When O’Neill handed in a transfer request in January 1981, the Times spared only 40 words to report it. “I do not believe in refusing transfer requests from unsettled players,” said Clough.
Norwich were in a relegation battle at the time and the manager Ken Brown had been given money to splash to avoid the drop. But it was some surprise when O’Neill chose to join them in February for their record transfer fee of £350,000 – he, surely, could do better than a team fighting relegation? Robertson, writing in his autobiography, was full of praise upon his departure: “As a wide right player he had become one of the best in his position in the country. Steve Coppell was starring for Manchester United and Jimmy Case was playing for Liverpool but Martin was certainly their equal in my eyes.”
So, why head to Norfolk? His Norwich teammates Mick McGuire, John Deehan and Greg Downs all agree on one reason: O’Neill, having won almost all there was to win, wanted the challenge of rescuing a struggling side. To be the hero who turned things round. Quite how confident he was, however, may be betrayed in the clause in his contract allowing him to leave if Norwich were relegated.
Another, perhaps more reasonable explanation, is that Norwich offered him the one thing he never had at Forest: a free role in central midfield. Brown compared him to his former West Ham teammate Trevor Brooking: crap in training, great on match day. He was happy for O’Neill to run things centrally – the position O’Neill had always craved.
He was also a big influence off the pitch. He settled in immediately – Deehan remembers him reading “the big papers, not the Mickey Mouse ones” – and his idea that all of the players had nights out as a team made him a favourite in the dressing room. O’Neill would also put on sessions for the younger players and get youth-teamers to join in a tennis ball game: if they could get it off him he’d let them have his car. These kids were unaware that O’Neill’s tennis-ball proficiency had started as child when he matched Puskás’s record – and O’Neill’s car was always safe.
On the pitch, O’Neill’s arrival – along with the defender Steve Walford from Arsenal and the former Forest goalkeeper Chris Woods from QPR – did improve Norwich’s form. But there was to be heartbreak on the last day: they lost 3-2 to Leicester as their relegation rivals Sunderland beat Liverpool. Norwich were relegated and O’Neill took advantage of his clause to join the former Norwich manager John Bond at Manchester City.
It wasn’t a wise move. He didn’t get on with Bond and played only 13 times for City. Unlike at Norwich, he wasn’t offered a free role and was competing against Gerry Gow, Tommy Hutchison, Paul Power, Asa Hartford and Bond’s son Kevin in midfield. City were suffering financial problems after signing O’Neill and Francis from Forest and were happy to recoup some of their losses and sell O’Neill back to Norwich six months after he’d left.
Back in central midfield and with the freedom of Carrow Road, O’Neill gave huge impetus to Norwich’s promotion push. His goal in a 1-0 win at Bolton sparked a run that saw them winning 10 of their last 12 matches to move from 13th into a promotion spot.
While Norwich celebrated their swift return to Division One, O’Neill had something else on his mind: the 1982 World Cup.
“There was more to Martin, a subtlety and a confidence and a composure that I don’t always think Brian Clough fully appreciated… He had his views and opinions, which he never hesitated to express.” Terry Neill, Martin O’Neill: The Biography
O’Neill may have bickered with his club managers but with Northern Ireland it was a different story: Neill, Dave Clements, Danny Blanchflower and Billy Bingham were all prepared to play O’Neill as an attacking midfielder which was when he was at his most content on a football pitch.
His international career wasn’t without controversy. In 1980, at a time of heavy fighting between the IRA and Loyalists, Bingham handed O’Neill the captaincy of Northern Ireland. He was the first Catholic to lead the country and both O’Neill and Bingham received hate mail and death threats for the decision. While O’Neill suspected it was a political choice, Bingham was adamant his decision was based purely on him being the best candidate. O’Neill was a European Cup winner, after all.
There was no divide between religions within the team and team spirit was excellent as they qualified for the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Even 4-0 defeats by both England and France in the build-up didn’t worry O’Neill, who told the press, “I’ve been playing international football long enough to realise the difference between doing well and not doing well depends on what happens on the night… I honestly feel that we have the spirit to do something special in Spain.”
Drawn in a group with hosts Spain, Yugoslavia and Honduras, few gave them a chance of qualifying from it. The Guardian predicted that, “Northern Ireland’s problem in the World Cup will lie in coping with the fast, skilful Spanish and Yugoslav attackers who run at their defence.”
They coped with Yugoslavia in their opening match, drawing 0-0 in Zaragoza as a 17-year-old Norman Whiteside won his first international cap and broke Pelé’s record as the youngest player to play in a World Cup. Again in Zaragoza, they drew 1-1 with Honduras: O’Neill missed a good headed chance to open the scoring early on.
Then it was on to Valencia, where the hosts waited for them. O’Neill’s biggest fear had been the intimidating crowd and it was a torrid atmosphere. More intimidating, though, was Spain’s level of aggression. Robert Armstrong, writing the match report for the Guardian, was not impressed: “Spain’s tactics of intimidation… reduced the game to a state of violent brawling chaos for lengthy periods”. This was a Spain side attempting to kick their way to the World Cup final.
Northern Ireland matched Spain’s ferocity and Pat Jennings – 20 years older than Whiteside – was inspired in goal. In the 47th minute, Armstrong picked up a loose ball deep in his own half. He charged forward, laid it off to Billy Hamilton on the right, whose cross from the by-line was slapped by Spain’s keeper Luis Arconada right into Armstrong’s path, who drove it back under him.
Northern Ireland hung on despite Mal Donaghy’s sending off and they celebrated wildly on the pitch at the final whistle. They had qualified for the next stages – the Guardian called it “one of the bravest and most emotionally charged victories ever seen in Europe”. Malcolm Brodie in the Belfast Telegraph wrote, “O’Neill played a captain’s role, inspiring by example and effort.”
Northern Ireland went out in the second group phase, but O’Neill’s place in World Cup history was sealed. Next was the return to normality at Norwich, and the winding down of his playing career.
"I've never planned anything in my life. I'm Irish. I don’t plan." Martin O’Neill
O’Neill was 30 when he returned from Spain. Although still a big influence in the Norwich side, his powers were slowly declining and he needed grafters such as Peter Mendham and Mick McGuire around him to get the best out of him (the irony of others doing the donkey work for him wouldn’t have been lost on O’Neill). A stunning 35-yard strike past Bruce Grobbelaar in a 2-0 win at Anfield in April – to complete the double over champions Liverpool – was the highlight of a season in which Norwich flirted with relegation before pulling clear with six wins in their last 10 games.
Then O’Neill was on the move again. While the Norwich board was talking over a potential sale to Notts County, O’Neill took the rather unusual step of bursting into the room and dictating terms. He got what he wanted and, in August 1983, he returned to Nottingham.
Notts County had been on a remarkable rise. A Division Four side in the 1970s, they achieved promotion to the top flight under Jimmy Sirrell in 1980-81. After keeping them up in 1981-82 and finishing 15th, Sirrell moved in to a general manager role and Howard Wilkinson came in as manager (curiously, Sirrell continued to write the manager’s column in the match-day programme) and they finished 15th again in 82-83. Wilkinson left to join Sheffield Wednesday, and Larry Lloyd – a centre-back who had played with O’Neill at Forest and under Bill Shankly at Liverpool – replaced him after being sacked by 3rd division Wigan. Before Wilkinson had left, he had already persuaded O’Neill to make the move.
With O’Neill at Notts County were Justin Fashanu, with whom he had played in his first spell at Norwich and who had been hastily moved on by Clough at Forest, and a young Nigel Worthington – who, like O’Neill, later managed Norwich. He was given a free role again and scored in the 18th minute of his debut in a 4-0 win at newly promoted Leicester City. County struggled that season, but there was a memorable comeback on December 27 at Old Trafford. Manchester United were 3-1 up with 10 minutes left when Fashanu struck twice in 90 seconds to level the scores. More remarkable, perhaps, was that County had nine players booked: the referee grew tired of the team’s failure to retreat at a free-kick and booked eight players – including O’Neill. “It was laughable,” said O’Neil after the match. “I said to the referee, ‘Why don't you book the lot of us?’ – and he did.”
Notts County were relegated and the following season they fell back down to Division Three; their decline even more rapid than their rise. O’Neill’s last game had come in February 1985, a month before his 33rd birthday: in a 3-1 home defeat to Shrewsbury he was substituted with damaged knee ligaments. He never played a first-team game again.
There were attempts to try to prove his fitness for the 1986 World Cup by playing in reserve games for Chesterfield and Fulham, but his knee wouldn’t hold up. O’Neill’s days as a footballer were finished. Over 15 years he’d accumulated an Irish Cup, an Anglo-Saxon Cup, two League Cups, a European Cup, a Division One title, a Charity Shield, a European Super Cup, a World Club Championship, two promotions, a famous World Cup win and thousands of put-downs from Brian Clough.
One day, when he is done with management and settled into retirement, and time has moved on from his managerial achievements with Celtic, Villa, Leicester and the Republic of Ireland, perhaps Martin O’Neill will be remembered the right way round: player first, manager second.