For A man who missed the penalty that lost Derry the 1970 All-Ireland Minor semi-final, Martin O’Neill has come a long way.
Ger Power’s Kerry won by two points that day, in a game Derry dominated courtesy of O’Neill. It is one of the few reversals in his career.
Last Sunday, I departed from the habit of a lifetime and watched a full soccer match. Before kick-off, the Sky cameras went outside the ground where there was an unmistakeable sense of excitement. The Sky studio team were swept up in the mood. So were the Sunderland team.
The game was played at a frantic tempo. A goal down with six minutes to go, you knew it wasn’t over.
Former Derry City winger, James McClean, entered the fray to make his debut under the new boss as Sunderland surged forward, time and time again. In the end, they couldn’t be resisted. When the exquisite winning goal went in, the cameras focused on Martin O’Neill as he sprang high into the air, beaming.
Afterwards, David Vaughan, the Sunderland midfielder, told reporters: “It felt different out there today. Martin has given us belief. He wants us to express ourselves and enjoy football. Training is fun. Sort, sharp and aimed at getting us to enjoy our football again.” With that, he smiled and headed for the changing room.
Sunderland’s players and supporters had just experienced the O’Neill effect.
McRory Cup Winner
My son Rory is a first year at the renowned St. Malachy’s College in North Belfast. Each morning, he walks through those 200-year-old oak doors, passing under a photograph of the great 1970 McRory Cup winning team. In the middle of the front row, sits O’Neill, their star.
Everywhere he goes, success follows. He began grammar school life at St. Columb’s College in Derry as a boarder, guiding them to the Corn Na n’Og title. Soon after, his family moved to Belfast and St. Malachy’s drew the long straw.
Two footed, with great balance and vision, he was soon turning out for the small Rosario club on the Ormeau Road.
John McGettrick, a veteran Belfast solicitor, boasts that he taught O’Neill the offside rule, running along the sideline and shouting “Now!”
He was a quick learner. Distillery swiftly signed him. Incredibly, six months later, they became Irish cup champions, defeating Derry City 2-0 in the 1971 decider courtesy of two goals from the 18-year-old.
Meanwhile, O’Neill brought his school to a second consecutive McRory final. Only this time there was trouble. Because O’Neill was playing “foreign games,” the Antrim Count Board refused to make Casement Park available. Eventually, the final was played in Tyrone. They lost, but a new future was looming for O’Neill.
Distillery’s cup win had earned them a place in Europe. Their first outing was against FC Barcelona in Belfast. O’Neill scored again and the scouts sat up.
Around that same time, the Derry senior team invited him to play in a challenge match against Meath at Navan. The teenage prodigy was marked out for special treatment and soon after the throw-in was carried unconscious from the field.
My uncle, Liam Hinphey, a close friend of O’Neill’s brother Leo, was at the game and believes this was the start of his disillusionment with Gaelic football. Within six months, he was on his way to Nottingham Forest and the rest is history.
In the mid-70’s, during his summer holidays, he was in Dungiven with Leo and spent an afternoon kicking football in my Granny Brolly’s back garden in Station Road. Just one of the lads, save for his terrific volleying technique. He has always done it his own way, one of the advantages of supreme confidence.
In the documentary, “The Greatest Manager England Never Had,” O’Neill talked about a particular signal Brian Clough gave to certain players when they did something special, touching his first finger against the tip of his thumb. He never afforded O’Neill the honour.
“I longed for the day,” said Martin, “but he never did.” I suspect old ‘Big Head’ knew the Kilrea man’s confidence didn’t need boosting.
He is a force of nature. Anthony Tohill went to the Glasgow Derby when O’Neill was managing Celtic. Afterwards, Neil Lennon brought Tohill up to the gaffer’s office. “He’ll kill me if he finds out you were here and I didn’t bring you up.”
When Lennon knocked at the door and opened it, O’Neill and Rangers’ manager, Alex McLeish, were having a glass of wine. As soon as O’Neill saw Tohill, he threw himself full length on the floor of his office, kissed Tohill’s feet and shouted at the bemused Rangers’ boss: “Get down and kiss a real legend’s feet.”
Tohill stood there, beetroot red!
Confidence the key?
Last week, at the Stadium of Light, O’Neill recalled weeping on Boxing Day 1962 when BBC radio transmitted the news that Brian Clough, Sunderland’s star striker, had suffered a career-ending knee injury.
As always, he was buzzing. His theme was “confidence.”
“I just need to get them believing” he said. “I couldn’t be more excited.” The Sunderland players are already feeling the magic.
Neil Lennon told me a story once about his beloved mentor. At Celtic, Neil dyed his hair blonde. After training, he was summoned to the manager’s office: “What’s the problem son?” Neil shrugged. “Tell me, what is it?” pressed an obviously irritated O’Neill. Lennon asked him what he meant.
“What have you done to your head?”
“I just wanted to do something different, gaffer.”
O’Neill replied “Score a f****** goal then!” After a short pause, they burst out laughing.
He reminds us that sport is fun, something to alleviate the daily grind. Sunderland folk are already enjoying their football again. Crucially, the players are revelling in his personality and method. In a few months, they will be kissing his feet.
With Martin, you just can’t help it.