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MARTIN O'NEILL: I didn't manage to get Eusebio#x26;#8217;s shirt, but I got his shorts

27 Feb 2010 01:23:09

MARTIN O'NEILL: I didn't manage to get Eusebio#x26;#8217;s shirt, but I got his shorts

August 22, 2002: Neil Lennon is 24 hours on from the loyalist death-threat telephone call that terminated his Northern Ireland career and is back in Glasgow at his club, Celtic. Awaiting him there is his manager Martin O'Neill who, like Lennon, is a Northern Irish Catholic and who, like Lennon, captained his country. O'Neill did so in the turbulent days of the early 1980s. So there would be understanding, sympathy, or so Lennon thought. As he tells it, though, on returning to Celtic, O'Neill met Lennon with the words: 'Ah, Neil, so you got my phone call, then?' Ulsterman: Martin O' Neill pictured in May 1979 Reminded of this on Thursday, O'Neill laughed out loud. Of course there had been sympathy for Lennon, but as O'Neill said: 'That'd be like something I'd come out with.' Black, gallows humour to some; green, Irish humour to O'Neill. This is a man who has been a significant factor in British football for the past 40 years, someone we know from European Cup and League title triumphs with Nottingham Forest as a player, and against-the-odds achievement as a manager with Wycombe Wanderers and Leicester City. He didn't do too badly at Celtic either, nor is he now at Aston Villa. All the while a picture has been painted of O'Neill leaping up and down on the touchline, a manic presence who then stares at his feet in interviews afterwards, stern, reticent. Yet off camera O'Neill is an eager talker and hilarious with it. Despite that, and all these years here, a mystique clings to the Irishman. Everyone says he is difficult to get to know, and he nodded to that on Thursday. They say he can be warm and distant, sometimes in the same sentence. 'The hard cold fire of the northerner,' as O'Neill's fellow Ulsterman and poet Louis MacNeice had it. And O'Neill, 58 on Monday, is Irish 'to the core', as he said after almost four decades spent mainly in England's Midlands. The name of Brian Clough is never far from O'Neill and Clough'sfascinating mentoring influence is undoubted. But it was a previousremark about a largely forgotten Belfast man called Jimmy McAlindenthat took Thursday's discussion at Villa's training ground back toIreland. Because of McAlinden, we arrived at Lennon. Because of Lennon we gotthe O'Neill opinion: 'I think there is something about the NorthernIrishman, that he can take some serious situations almost intoself-mockery.' Given some of O'Neill's Irish times, it is a quality worth having. Star man: O'Neill (right of priest) with his St Malachy's College Belfast  team Not just son of Clough It was February 1996, less than two months since O'Neill became manager of Leicester and he and John Robertson were travelling north to do something O'Neill had not done before, or since. Lennon was then a Crewe midfielder living in Stockport. O'Neill and Robertson drove to Lennon's house, knocked on his door and waited. They were shocked. They liked Lennon's football, but not his home. 'What a hovel,' O'Neill said. 'The rats were begging for mercy.' But it was a successful trip. Lennon would go on to become 'fundamental' to O'Neill's cup wins and league titles with Leicester then Celtic. And it was a door-knock that took O'Neill back, back to his own semi-professional beginnings in 1969 when McAlinden, then manager of the Belfast club Distillery, rapped on O'Neill's door. 'That made an amazing impact on me,' O'Neill recalled. 'I owe a great deal to Jimmy McAlinden. 'By knocking on my door he personally had come to the house to see about me signing for Distillery when he could have sent someone else round with an invitation to a couple of days' training. 'As a manager he was very astute. People talked about tactics, still do, McAlinden could have blinded them on that, honestly. But he chose not to.  'As most great managers do, he focused on the heart and soul of theteam and what would carry you through. But he could make changes duringa game. He'd won the FA Cup with Portsmouth, very well thought of. 'He gave me great confidence, a lot. A lot. He kept telling me I wascapable of doing great things on the pitch. If he ever did loseconfidence, it never showed.' That sounds a familiar managerial trait. 'It is, yes, that's similar to myself. Absolutely. Even the finestof players need confidence. They need people to keep believing in themeven when things are rough. 'As most players who have worked with me will say, as a manager itdoes take me time for them to win me over heart and soul, but once theyhave done that unfortunately it seems like a never ending thing. On target: Martin O'Neill scores from Distillery in the Irish Cup Final, April 1971 'Once a player's in me, it's hard to shift him out. That's been the nature of my management. 'I've done that probably because I've always wanted that belief from managers myself. It matters. 'Brian Clough had his own way. 'When I left Forest for Norwich, Mel Machin was the manager. In my second match for Norwich we lost at Wolves, but he came in after the game and said to me, 'That was world class'. 'That made you want to go out and perform, and to play for people. McAlinden had that. In my career he was fundamentally important. 'I was speaking to some old Distillery players recently and it wasn't just me he treated that way. 'What he did for Distillery, he had us up there challenging, we won the Irish Cup. He got a group of players, both Catholic and Protestant, in very, very difficult times, to knit together. 'Wittingly or unwittingly he had these players who would have died for him. I think that's a wonderful sign in a manager.' Distillery winning the Irish Cup is a bit like Leicester City finishing in the top half of the Premier League four seasons in a row, winning the League Cup twice in that time and going into Europe. With Distillery, the Irish Cup also meant Europe. They drew Barcelona. In the first leg in Belfast, O'Neill scored. He was still a law student at Queen's University. Adventure: O'Neill (centre) pictured at breakfast during the 1982 World Cup 'We then went out to Barcelona and lost 4-0, but for us to be in the Nou Camp... there were only 20-30,000 in the stadium, so it was sparse, but those couple of days off with the players, staying in the hotel, I had the feeling that if this is what semi-professional football is like, then I want it all the time. 'It wasn't long after that that I got the chance to play for Northern Ireland and to go to England. 'In terms of influence, I couldn't emphasise enough Jimmy McAlinden. I thought I realised that then, now I realise more.' Scoring against EusebioTerry Neill started the ball rolling. At 28, Neill was somehow player-manager of Hull City and player-manager of Northern Ireland. O'Neill, 19, was with Distillery and Queen's when, in October 1971, he made his international debut. A sign of the era was that it came against the USSR. Another sign was that it was the last Northern Ireland game to be played in Belfast until 1975. 'There was talk about me, as they say in Ireland, 'going across the water',' O'Neill said. 'Scouts came to see me play. But they would find fault. In one game against Glenavon we won 6-2 and I scored two the opening 12 minutes. Two belters. 'I'm not sure I did much after that. You know who was at the game? Stan Mortensen. The great Stan Mortensen was a scout at Manchester City. Apparently he went back and reported that this boy O'Neill is really lazy. 'I got into the Irish squad. I remember it like yesterday. What Terry Neill did was instigate my transfer because he said Hull might have an interest in me. He wanted me to keep my studying going, to which I said yes. But then I'd have said yes to anything he asked. 'A few days later he put a bid in from Hull of £10,000. I thought, 'I'm worth £10,000? Fantastic.' Then the news came through that Forest were prepared to pay £15,000. This was manna to Distillery. I went to Forest the next Wednesday, as quick as that. 'Then I played in Hull for Northern Ireland, my second cap. George Best played. The genius. I'll never forget he arrived with his business partner from Manchester, the boutique man. High point: O'Neill prods home for Northern Ireland against Portugal 1973 'We were staying in Scarborough. Met up at lunchtime. Bestie didn't arrive. Then he turned up at 10 o'clock blitzed. He'd been on a pub crawl from Manchester to Scarborough. I remember him in the dressing room clattering his boots on the floor to get the mud off. They hadn't been cleaned from his last match. 'He always roomed with Pat Jennings, two world-class players together. Our family moved up to Belfast in '68 and I was at Windsor Park in '70 the day he got sent off against Scotland. 'I never saw a player want to get sent off as much. I think he finally spat at the referee. Driving rain. I was there, in the crowd at the Kop end by the tunnel. I swear to God, I could have reached out and touched him. George Best...' That game in Hull in 1972 against Spain came a fortnight after Bloody Sunday. Northern Ireland's Troubles had another atrocity and here was its football team in Hull. As Neill recalled: 'We ended up at places like Hull, Coventry, Hillsborough and Fulham, we were gypsies. But there was never any problem within the squad. 'We talked about things, yes, and there was a heightening of feeling about what was going on at home. If it doesn't sound too self-righteous, we hoped we could give our wee place a lift.' 'Once a player's in me, it's hard to shift him out. That's been the nature of my management.' The geographic dislocation meant O'Neill's first Northern Ireland goal was scored in a 'home' game against Portugal, in Coventry. 'Myself, I'd say being a professional footballer shielded you to an extent but not every way,' O'Neill said of the developing turmoil. 'There was bombing in England too. To be Irish in England then was never unbelievably bad, but it was uncomfortable at times. 'But my memory of that Portugal game was purely football, because Eusebio was playing. He might have been on his last legs but he played and I scored. 'I remember in the last 15 minutes starting to hope I might get Eusebio's shirt. I noticed then that Bryan Hamilton was standing very close to Eusebio and not because he was marking him. 'So Hamilton took the shirt, much to my disgust. I exchanged shirts with another Portuguese player lovely shirts, great colouring but I walked off not completely happy. 'I was still needing something from Eusebio. So I went up to him in the tunnel and pointed to his shorts. And he took his shorts off. Went into his dressing room in his underpants.' O'Neill laughed at himself again: 'Great shorts, wee stripe down the side of them.' As now: O'Neill is hugely popular as manager of Aston Villa Danny's 14-yard wall O'Neill won his 47th cap the night he led Northern Ireland to their finest modern hour in the 1982 World Cup, beating the hosts Spain. Billy Bingham had taken the decision to appoint O'Neill in spite of protests at his religion. Tommy Cassidy, one of O'Neill's former room-mates said: 'Windsor Park was about 99 per cent Protestant for Northern Ireland games and you could feel it. I was 100 per cent Protestant, that's how it was.' Now, as then, O'Neill's view is: 'Given the political circumstances, I thought it was a brave decision.' If there are two aspects of Bingham's management that impressed O'Neill, they were the unity of spirit and the fast tempo of the game. As a manager O'Neill was less sure about Bingham's predecessor, Danny Blanchflower, though he had no doubts about the man. 'Blanchflower, he was great, really great. Charismatic. Danny had ideas that unfortunately were not of his time. He was an absolute gentleman and wanted the game played in that fashion. Unfortunately the game had changed from his playing days. 'In one of our first training sessions he said to Pat Jennings, 'I'm fed up with these boys who encroach at free-kicks. We won't do that. Instead of standing 10 yards off the ball, we'll stand 14 yards off it.' 'Pat said, 'I'm not so sure that's a great idea, Danny.' Danny said, 'Let's practise.' 'So Sammy Nelson came out and bent 10 free-kicks round the 14-yard wall. Even with Pat Jennings in nets, Sammy scored nine. Danny sidled over to Big Pat and said, 'Perhaps you're right, Pat.' 'Danny had this idea of playing the game so fairly. We enjoyed him, for all his idiosyncracies. I liked him a lot. I liked him for what he had done as a player. Iconic. Great to listen to. We stayed in the Chimney Corner hotel outside Belfast. We'd be around the fire mesmerised by his stories. Brilliant.' Irish heart, English blood O'Neill, of course, can talk when the mood takes him. 'He can't sing,' Cassidy mentioned. And on Sunday in the Carling Cup final against Manchester United at Wembley, the Irish heart of Aston Villa will have the blood of his English side pumping. It has been a deliberate recruitment policy, up to a point. 'Somebody asked me is it a guided thing,' he said. 'I think the heartbeat of a club, its essence, should be from its country. So if I was ever in Spain, I'd think the heartbeat should be Spanish. If I was at Athletic Bilbao, it'd be Basque, very obviously. 'That doesn't prevent me being Irish to the core. But you have a mindset here, lads of a similar age and background. They're not all English, look at Carlos Cuellar, he's Rangers. 'But they could be successful. Together.'  Explore more:People:George Best, Carlos Cuellar, Martin O'Neill, Danny Blanchflower, Brian Clough, John RobertsonPlaces:Belfast, Glasgow, Fulham, Norwich, Manchester, Ireland, Spain, Scotland, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom, Portugal, Europe


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