Battles with the media, ringing phone-in shows and getting beat up during a GAA game: Paul Kimmage meets Martin O'Neill
Martin O'Neill, the one that got away for so long, is finally tracked down and cornered
For some time now - 13 years, three months and two days to be precise - Martin O'Neill has enthralled me. It started with an interview in The Sunday Times in March 2003 that opened, not with the latest glories from his reign at Parkhead, but with a furtive trip to London with his wife, Geraldine, to chase the ghost of Lord Lucan.
O'Neill was fascinated by murderers. There was an old joke at Wycombe, that the only reason he had taken the job was the club's proximity to the Hanratty crime scene - a case (double murder) that had obsessed O'Neill since childhood. He had visited Lee Harvey Oswald's cell in Dallas. Taken a heavily pregnant Geraldine to the trial of the Yorkshire Ripper and several friends to Gloucester for the trial of Fred West.
"I've been to so many murder scenes with Martin now, I sometimes think that one of these days I'll be murdered in one of those places myself," his wife joked, in the piece by Brian Doogan. The 'Doog' wrote well and was popular with everyone. Not me. I wanted to kill him.
O'Neill grew more interesting with every year that passed. And further from the press. Major interviews were few and far between - he'd given none since taking the Ireland job - and I gave up hope of picking his extraordinary brain and filed him with Lord Lucan. The one that got away.
But he kept popping up on my radar.
First, over dinner one night with a friend, Daniel Ryan - a brilliant musician and former guitarist with The Thrills: "I've had dinner with Martin," he said. "I know his daughter, Aisling." Then, over a cup of tea with the great Mike Gibson: "I was with Martin last night at the Belfast Telegraph Awards," he said. "I'm going to drive down to Dublin and have lunch with him."
And then during a manic drive to a district court with Joe Brolly.
"Did I ever tell you that story about O'Neill and Anthony Tohill?"
"Him and Neil Lennon are pals ye see, and he goes over for a match and into the Players' Lounge. Then Neil says: 'Jesus! The gaffer will never forgive me if he finds out you're here'. So he takes Tohill upstairs to O'Neill's office. They knock on the door and step inside and O'Neill is drinking wine with Alex McLeish."
"The Rangers manager?"
"Yeah, it was an Old Firm game."
"Okay, go on."
"O'Neill rises from his desk, meets Tohill in the doorway and bends down to kiss his feet. 'On your knees McLeish!' he roars, 'and pay homage to a real star'."
It's Thursday afternoon at the Ireland training camp in Versailles. The first session has ended and O'Neill has come across the pitch to meet the press.
"The hotel is terrific."
"The players are thriving."
"Jon (Walters) is improving."
He's not kissing feet today. He removes his glasses, wipes a bead of sweat from his brow and is gone after six minutes.
But here's one we prepared earlier.
1 A cold, cruel, world
Dear Mister 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 are you trying to tell me, Mister 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 the queue at the Labour Exchange. To use your own words, Mr Richards, it's a 'cold, cruel, world.'
Paul Kimmage: Martin, I'd like to take you back to January 1974 and your third season as a professional with Nottingham Forest. There's a new manager, Allan Brown, and you're not getting on and the sports editor of the Nottingham Evening Post has a crack at you in print saying, basically, that you have a lot to be grateful for. And you do something really interesting - you write him a letter: 'Dear Mister Richards . . .'
Martin O'Neill (smiles): You've a copy of the letter, great.
PK: What I find interesting is that this is a trait that runs right through your career: I watched you almost combust at the Aviva one night with a journalist because of some point he had made about the games you were attending.
MO'N: That was Paul Rowan. He was throwing it out of the ether. He said there was some sort of game happening and I wasn't there because I had visited Queens Park Rangers twice in four or five days or something. And it irritated me so I told him exactly where I had been.
PK: So don't be unfair and don't get your facts wrong?
MO'N: Absolutely. Criticism is part of the game. Winning and losing is the nature of the game. We lost the other night against Belarus - it might only be a friendly but it still hurts - and it opens you up to heavy criticism and for people to say what they want. Fine. But please, do not get a hopeless load of facts (wrong) just because you want to stick them into somebody. The fellow, Richards, who wrote that piece, essentially what he was saying was that I was plucked from a gutter. It was a load of guff.
PK: There are some other brilliant examples: one that stood out was during your first months at Leicester in 1996, where you go eight games without a win and there's almost a riot after a defeat to Sheffield United. Some of the fans are giving you dog's abuse but you write them letters?
MO'N: No, I'll tell you exactly what happened. There were letters - they were coming in bucket loads . . .
PK: And you stored them?
MO'N: I stored them, and quite a number had put their telephone numbers on them. Now I can't be going back and having a go at people if we are losing matches but I thought: 'I'll tell you what, if we get promotion . . .' Because the argument was that promotion was dying and that I'd gone into this great side that Mark McGhee (the previous manager) had left. It was not. The team was struggling. They had won one match in the previous seven but McGhee had been such a salesman that he'd had them believing: 'Listen, don't worry, it's just a blip.' So I couldn't (win) the games and was getting howlers. And then we played Sheffield United at Filbert Street and I was booed almost incessantly and there's letters and phone-ins:
'Gotta get rid of O'Neill.'
'Gotta get rid of O'Neill.'
And I went on one of the phone-ins before a Tuesday game and said: "Listen, I've only been in charge a couple of months, I think you ought to give me a chance. If I'm serving the same stuff up to you for the next six months, fair enough, but you have to give me a chance." There was one particular fellow, honestly; he said I was ruining his club and starts telling me about what a great job the previous manager had done, and what a great coach he was. And then he starts telling me about his own life and some scripts he had written for EastEnders or something. I thought: 'This guy's a bit of a bidnaw.' But I kept the letter.
PK: What did you call him?
MO'N: An old phrase.
PK: What does it mean?
PK: (laughs): Okay, keep going, you get to the play-offs and win promotion.
MO'N: We won promotion I phoned him one night and went through him, absolutely through him. And there were about seven or eight other (phone calls) as well . . .
"You were scathing of me at a time when there was no need to be."
"No, no, no."
"Yes you were."
"No, you don't know how frustrated we were."
Anyway, it made me feel good for a while.
PK: Injustice burns you?
MO'N: I think you would be exactly the same.
PK: Sure, but it's not always healthy.
MO'N: That is true, and it doesn't always get you to the place you may want to go, but, my God, for a while you do actually feel not bad about it.
PK: And how do you feel about this?
(He is handed a copy of The Irish Times and a photograph from Monday's press conference where he apologised for a remark about not being "queer" during an audience with fans recently at the Cork Opera House.)
PK: It does not look fun?
MO'N: No, it's not fun. And you know you have to apologise and that's fine, I have not a problem with that; if I have genuinely caused somebody some sort of concern, I think it's only right to do that.
PK: That's not the same as believing that you genuinely caused offence?
MO'N: Yeah, that's a good point. I didn't really think (I had) but that doesn't matter if what I think, and what is actually out there, are two different things. Then I have to be more careful, and I will be from now on.
PK: I guess the format didn't help - an audience full of blokes who want a laugh. It can be easy to get sucked into that: 'Let's entertain them. Let's give them a laugh.' And for things to get taken out of context.
MO'N: That is exactly it. They have paid money for a show and expect to be entertained, but it can't be below the belt and I accept that it was.
PK: Another comment you made that night was a reference to Eamon Dunphy as a failed player and "needing to play in the big league to be a good player." I thought that was a mistake.
MO'N: Well, okay, but Dunphy has said that about himself: 'He was a good player, not a great player.'
PK: He said that about (Michel) Platini.
MO'N: No, he's said that about himself.
PK: He has?
MO'N: He has: "I was a good player, not a great player." And my point was that he wasn't a good player. He genuinely wasn't a good player.
PK: But he played for Ireland 25 times! He was on the books at Manchester United!
MO'N: He didn't make the grade.
PK: Okay, but this is the argument: How many of your players - the players you're taking to the Euros - have played in the big league?
MO'N: The mistake was saying "the big league." He didn't make it at Manchester United: he didn't play big time football and if that has been misinterpreted . . . Listen, Dunphy has spent the last two and a half years (slaughtering me) so I think he's entitled to something back. He did actually call me a liar once and I had to take a case against him. And apparently he's in the paper today saying it ('queer') was a shameful comment. I wonder were his comments shameful when he was drunk or swearing on TV? So it's the double standards.
PK: But you're not denying his right to express his opinion?
MO'N: Listen, I can't stop anybody from having an opinion, whether they be a player, an ex-player or journalist or whatever. And this is what I said (at the press conference) yesterday: "You were right to criticise me for my crass comment, absolutely, but don't use it as a springboard to lay into me for things that are actually not true."
2 'You're not playing college
football now, ye yap!'
"Fact checking. You used a word I didn't understand, sounded like hyenas."
"You were talking about your rivals in Kilrea."
"Yeah. You said they were the dirtiest hyenas of all time.
"No, no, no, the dirtiest hallions."
"It's a south Derry expression."
A (frantic) call to the Ireland team hotel on Friday afternoon.
PK: I was at the Belarus game at Turner's Cross last week and watched yourself and Roy (Keane) walk onto the pitch. Now Roy is obviously God down there and it struck me that he might just be the Michael Collins of Irish football. But what would that make you? How would you feel about being portrayed as the Eamon de Valera of Irish football?
MO'N (laughs): No, I think it would take a fair stretch of the imagination before I could be considered Eamon de Valera, that would not be something that would sit comfortably with me. I think I'd go with something else.
PK: Talk to me about your sense of Irishness: you gave a brilliant lecture once about what it means to be Irish - I think at Áras an Uachtaráin - and you started it with a brilliant story about a trip to the All-Ireland final in 1958. Your brother, Leo, is playing for Derry against Dublin and you travel down with your mother on the morning of the game?
PK: Where was your father?
MO'N: He did go but was with a bunch of his cronies, in those days I'm not sure you took wives to games, but I don't know this. I'm six years of age and the only thing I know is that I'm going to watch my brother play in the All-Ireland final in Croke Park.
PK: Your home is Kilrea in County Derry?
MO'N: Yeah. We were up at five o'clock in the morning and had to travel about half a mile down to the street, to the big bus that was waiting. It took an age to get to Dublin. A couple of girls got on and would sing the song of every county we passed through - I remember particularly the one from County Armagh - and I'm pretty sure we stopped in Cookstown for Mass. But we finally got there and it seemed within a second or two that everyone went in a different direction and it was 'see you later' kind of thing. My mother and I walked up the canal way and into the Nally Stand and I sat down beside her and thought: 'This is great.' And then, minutes before throw-in, a fellow with the yellowist teeth I had ever seen took my seat and I had to sit on my mother's knee.
PK: Isn't it amazing what sticks in our memories? A man with yellow teeth!
MO'N: Yeah, a Dublin supporter, very pleasant. He said, "I'm sorry I'm taking your seat." But very bad teeth!
PK: Do you remember anything about the game other than Derry losing?
MO'N: Honestly? No.
PK: Did Leo get on?
MO'N: He did get on. He had played in the semi-final (a one point defeat of Kerry) as an 18-year-old, and had played really well, but there was talk of a political situation - somebody whose family had plenty of money - playing in his position of corner-forward but I don't know. I just remember it was disappointing.
PK: Was that your first time in Dublin?
MO'N: Yeah. A great stadium, it looked fantastic. The Cusack Stand with all these wee things . . . brilliant.
PK: Your parents were Greta and Leo. How did they meet?
MO'N: My mother was an O'Kane from Swatragh in County Derry. My father had a Donegal background. I came into the world when they had a number of children: I was about halfway in the list and was born in 1952.
PK: The order was Agatha, Gerry, Leo, Mary, Breedge, Martin, Eoin, Shane, Roisin.
MO'N: That's correct. I would love to tell you I had the worst childhood you could ever imagine but believe it or not it was idyllic. I had two older brothers that I idolised, two younger brothers that I played with, sisters I adored and a mother and father I had great respect for.
PK: Why would I not believe it?
MO'N: Well, yeah, but if you were writing a book or an autobiography, you'd love to start by saying you had a terrible time of it to make it interesting (laughs). No, it was really great.
PK: Your father was a founding member of the Gaelic club in Kilrea?
PK: He was a barber?
PK: And obviously of a nationalist persuasion but he had a picture of the Busby Babes in the barber shop?
MO'N: An incredible picture - a faded red that looked sort of plum as if it had a mist over it. He gave it to me and to my eternal discredit I don't have it now, but it was fascinating, mystical.
PK: What kind of town was Kilrea? I think you said in the lecture that most of his customers were Protestants?
MO'N: Well, there was a Catholic contingent as well, and we had a couple of Catholic schools, but of the 20 houses in our council estate, four of them were occupied by Catholics. But we got on pretty well with all of the Protestants. My mother was a popular, gracious woman and we never had any problems. In the summertime, we would be out playing cricket and I never felt this was . . .
PK: An English game?
MO'N: Absolutely. It was soccer in the wintertime and cricket in the summertime - Protestants and Catholics together. So it never felt like a conflict and it wasn't strange for me on a Sunday to dress up and go to church and buy the Sunday Independent and The Sunday Press, down beside the gravestones where you bought your papers. My brothers would come home and if they weren't playing for Derry on a particular Sunday, they would be playing club football in the afternoon. So that was our Sundays - the most enjoyable you could ever imagine except when Kilrea played Newbridge, who were the dirtiest hallions of all time.
PK: We all inherit our parents' genes and character traits. You said in the lecture that you get your anomalies and contradictions from your father?
MO'N: My father was a brilliant storyteller. When you're cutting people's hair you have to enthuse them. And he liked a little bet. He would nip across to the bookies at lunchtime but on Saturdays he worked right through from seven in the morning until late. My mother would bring his meals to him and he would stop and eat in the shop and with the money he would earn we were never found wanting. He was full of contradictions? Yes, in the sense that . . . (pauses) . . . gosh, let's see.
MO'N: Well, he was a Northern Irishman, so he was entitled to be full of contradictions, but he had a really decent way with him. At one stage we owned some greyhounds and he would go out every morning (to the edge of the town) and walk them. There was one day he was on the touchline for a game in Kilrea and was encouraging a player to do better: "Come on, get into the game." And the player shouts back: "Barber! Who's playing in this game, me or you?" And he says: "By the looks of things none of the two of us."
PK: So you get your wit from him as well?
MO'N: Well, he was pretty popular, and had great enthusiasm for the game. He would have been incredibly proud of my two brothers playing for Derry.
PK: What about your own Gaelic career? You played in Croke Park?
MO'N: I played in Croke Park in a Hogan final for St Malachy's against Coláiste Chríost Rí and with the Derry minors in two consecutive years.
PK: An All-Ireland semi-final?
MO'N: Yeah, one year we beat Wexford and I scored five points from play - I was a really decent player, honestly - and a semi-final against Kerry when I missed a penalty.
PK: Yeah, I was going to ask about that.
MO'N: I was playing really well in the game, but there's only minutes left and we're four points behind and need the goal. In those days we were 14 yards out - a long way for a minor - so it wasn't one of those where you can just side-foot it into the net. Anyway, the long and the short of it was that the goalkeeper made the save and we were beaten, which was obviously devastating.
PK: A Derryman told me that story two days ago. Isn't it extraordinary that people still remember you for that miss!
MO'N (laughs): Well, sometimes their memories can play tricks on them. And I'm sure if I wasn't managing the Republic of Ireland they would never remember it. But that defeat in the (1970) Hogan final was a massive disappointment and a game we should never have lost. Coláiste Chríost Rí had a bigger side and scored a goal in the last minute - devastating. I'd put it on a par with losing the Championship with Celtic on the final day of the season (in 2005). You can say: 'Well, who would worry about a college game?' But when I went to St Malachy's in 1968 the team were playing in second-rate competitions and had done nothing for years.
PK: That was the year your family moved to Belfast?
MO'N: Yeah, to just off the Antrim Road.
PK: Was that related to the Troubles?
MO'N: No, this was just before the Troubles really started. My mother and father had spent time in Belfast together in the early part of their marriage.
PK: How did you find the change?
MO'N: I loved it. I had been boarding at St Columb's in Derry but when we moved to Belfast and I went to Malachy's it meant I could get home. There was a group of lads in my year who were soccer-mad. We played in the quad after school and when they saw I could play a bit, they invited me to play for Rosario, in the youth team, and it was exciting.
PK: I'm really interested in the transition you made from Gaelic to soccer and the story of what prompted it. You played for the Derry senior team?
MO'N: I played one game for the senior side in Meath.
MO'N: That, I can't remember. It was only a friendly match . . .
PK: But it wasn't very friendly?
MO'N: No, it wasn't very friendly. One of the players gave me a biffing. I'm lying on the ground and the late Sean O'Connell, who was a very fine player for Derry, comes over and turns on this guy: "You're a dirty ****! He's only a kid!" And the guy says: "Well, he shouldn't be playing in this game if he's only a kid." (Laughs) Which actually resonated with me for a long, long time.
PK: What did he do to you?
MO'N: Well, you still see it now, there's plenty of off-the-ball incidents. What about the Dublin boy recently who was suspended and the suspension was lifted?
PK: Diarmud Connolly
MO'N: Yeah . . . it happens. The pitch is massive, the ball is down there and you're waiting for it to come up. In those days it was staid positions - the roving full-forward was about the height of the movement - and if the boy thought he was bigger than you he would club you to frighten the life out of you. And if you're a 17-year-old kid and he's a 27-year-old man, there's a likelihood you will find that distracting.
PK: And did you? I was told it was the reason you left the game?
MO'N: No, absolutely not. There was a club game. I was doing my A-Levels at St Malachy's and I came back to play for Kilrea against Newbridge in a senior championship game. Newbridge had the Gribbins and a couple of big families playing for them, a big, fine, side but very, very physical. Now as I said I was in the middle of my A-Levels, and the last thing you wanted was to hurt your hands. So we start and the game is tight and I'm playing against this fellow called Dessie McLarnon and he's coughing away at me: "You're not playing college football now, ye yap!" He keeps rastling me and I decide I'm going to hit him, so I hit him and honestly, what a mistake that was!
MO'N: There was about four punches thrown, all levelled by him, and I'm lying there and my brother Leo runs over and bends down on top of me.
PK: To protect you?
MO'N: Absolutely. And there's this huge melee and the game disintegrates into an unbelievable commotion and we walk off the pitch and Leo says: "Martin, do you know what? It's not worth it."
PK: And that was the end of your Gaelic football career?
MO'N: No, not at all. Because we had walked off, there was a bit of a hullaballoo with the Derry County Board - "leaving the pitch without permission" was an automatic six-month ban in those days - but they wanted me to play in the minors so it was cut to a month. And I did play for the minors - that was the year I missed the penalty against Kerry.
PK: Sorry, I'm confused, are you saying the violence had nothing to do with you turning to soccer?
MO'N: It probably helped me to make up my mind that I wanted to go in a certain direction but there was no defining moment. I was still a kid at the time but I'd have got stronger and been able to cope. I would love to have played senior football and won the All-Ireland with Derry, and when they did eventually win the All-Ireland I could not have been more pleased, and was envious it wasn't me.
3 As good as Puskas
Clough stopped a training session on one occasion because he knew O'Neill was in a mood with him. O'Neill was full of professional pride: it hit him like a sledgehammer if Clough ever left him out and the Irishman, by his own admission, had a tendency to sulk. Clough told O'Neill he didn't like self-pity or miserable faces and they weren't going to start training again until everyone knew what was bothering him. O'Neill refused, so Clough announced that no one would be leaving until he had spat it out. "Fine," O'Neill said, "I want to know why I'm in the second team." "I can answer that," Clough replied jauntily, and he was walking off even before he had finished his reply. "Because you're too good for the third team."
'I Believe In Miracles'
PK: You starting playing soccer, the foreign game, seriously at Rosario, and then you were signed by Distillery. At what stage did you start thinking about it as a career?
MO'N: The first soccer game I ever saw was in 1958. Our neighbour, Mr McCotter, had a TV shop and invited us to watch the World Cup final. We went down to his house and pulled the curtains to keep the sun out and watched Brazil play . . . was it Sweden they beat?
MO'N: And then there was Real Madrid beating Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in the (1960) European Cup when (Ferenc) Puskas became a hero. My older brother, Gerry, had read his book and came back from university one day and threw me a tennis ball: "Go on! Puskas can keep it up 200 times." It was bouncing all over the place and fell off my feet at two. But a couple of months later, when he came home on his Christmas break, I was able to keep it up 200 times. I thought, 'Well, if I can do that I'm going to be as good as Puskas.'
PK: So TV was the catalyst?
MO'N: Yeah. I think Match of the Day arrived in 1963 or 1964 and you'd see those crowds and think, 'This is what I want to do.'
PK: You left St Malachy's with A-Levels in Ancient History, English Literature and Latin, and opted for law at Queen's. Why law?
MO'N: Because I was always very interested in criminal law, and because a group of my school pals were going, and Queen's seemed a decent enough place to have a good time. It was never going to define my life. My hope was that somebody would come and see me playing for Distillery, and that I could make the grade across the water.
PK: The impression I have is that it happened pretty quickly?
MO'N: It did. I was still at St Malachy's when I made my debut for Distillery and when we won the Irish Cup (April 1971). The summer came, I started at Queen's, and we were drawn against Barcelona (in the Cup Winners Cup).
PK: A 3-1 defeat but you scored?
PK: A month later (October 13, 1971) you make your debut for Northern Ireland against the Soviet Union at Windsor Park?
MO'N: A European Championship game: I think at that stage it didn't matter - we weren't going to qualify - and a couple of players including George Best had cried off. I only played for 20 minutes but (the manager) Terry Neill pulled me aside after the game and said: "Listen, I'm thinking of putting a bid in for you but I want you to continue your education."
PK: Because he was also managing Hull at the time?
MO'N: Yeah. They were in the second division at the time but that didn't matter to me, it was an opportunity. That Saturday we were playing Crusaders and there was a headline in the paper: 'Hull make bid for O'Neill'. Terry Neill, true to his word, had made a bid of £10,000.
PK: So how did you sign for Nottingham Forest?
MO'N: I got word that night that Matt Gillies, the Forest manager, was interested and prepared to offer £5,000 more. But first Distillery had to make me a professional. So essentially I was still a student on Tuesday night, and a professional on Wednesday morning - that's how quick it was.
PK: How did your parents feel about it?
MO'N: My mother, deep down, was probably excited for me but very concerned because nobody had tried to make a living out of sport before in our family. And she would always have said: "Remember, you need something to fall back on." My father would have been excited by it.
PK: They followed you to England?
PK: Was that Troubles-related?
MO'N: No, although trouble in Belfast was pretty rife at the time. They probably felt I needed looking after - which wasn't on my list, this was my time for freedom - but they came over and my brother and younger sisters went to schools in Nottingham.
PK: In July 1973, you made another memorable trip to Dublin and played for an all-Ireland team - or the Shamrock Rovers XI as it was officially known - against Brazil
MO'N: Yes, you couldn't call it an all-Ireland team. Johnny Giles had some involvement with it, and another gentleman whose name will come to me . . .
PK: Louis Kilcoyne.
MO'N: Yes, Louis Kilcoyne. But for me the real hero was Derek Dougan, because Derek had been championing this kind of thing for some time, even though he knew it was going to go against the grain. He helped to organise it, and promote it, and put himself in the firing line. I don't think he ever played for Northern Ireland again.
PK: He didn't.
MO'N: Yeah, that was a shame because he was still capable of it. Things were going pretty well for me; I was starting to get a foothold at Forest and had played well in the Home International series and ended up playing midfield against Brazil with Johnny Giles, which was great. We lost 4-3 but a great occasion. Pat Jennings played in goal and there were a couple of Northern Ireland players . . .
PK: Here's the team: Pat Jennings, David Craig, Paddy Mulligan, Allan Hunter, Tommy Carroll, Liam O'Kane, Johnny Giles, Mick Martin, Martin O'Neill, Terry Conroy, Miah Dennehy, Derek Dougan, Don Givens, Bryan Hamilton.
MO'N: That's it, brilliant.
PK: Liam Tuohy managed.
PK: There was resistance from the IFA (Irish Football Association) about the game.
MO'N: Well, it was under the guise of Shamrock Rovers and it felt as if it covered a multitude of things. We wore Celtic shirts, or Shamrock Rovers shirts, and maybe I was naïve at the time but I never felt anything else other than a genuine honour to be picked in the team. And there were no repercussions for me - any time I was left out of the Northern Ireland side it was because I didn't play well enough.
PK: What did your father think? We've another Derry boy, James McClean, playing for the Republic now. Was that an option back then?
MO'N: No, you were born in the North and it never occurred to me that you had a choice in things. The choice was much more limiting than it is now, you played wherever you were born.
PK: There was no 'great-grandfather' rule?
MO'N: No . . . although I think Chris Nicholl, our big centre-half in 1982, was actually born in England. And Jimmy Nicholl, I believe, was born in Canada but there was never a situation where you were lining up with some boy who had the possibility of playing for three countries. Things were different.
PK: You became captain of Northern Ireland in 1980.
PK: The first Catholic to captain the team?
MO'N: I think I might have been. It was a brave decision by Billy Bingham to do that.
PK: Why brave?
MO'N: Brave because he had other options.
PK: You asked him why he had chosen you.
MO'N: I don't remember that.
PK: Did you have any reservations about accepting?
MO'N: None. I thought it was a real honour. Why do you think I should have?
PK: Didn't you tell Sammy McIlroy once that you didn't mind being booed coming off the pitch but it was much more concerning getting booed going on?
MON (smiles): I was joking.
PK: I'm just wondering about the reception you got.
MO'N: The reception didn't bother me.
PK: How were you received?
MO'N: It would have been mixed at the time. There was certainly a lobby for Sammy to get the job but the players accepted me and that was the most important thing - anything outside of that I could live with. But I was forever grateful to Bingham because I thrived with it. I had no real aspiration to be the captain of Nottingham Forest but this was different. I thought: 'I'm really going to make the most of this' and worked at keeping the players together and fostering a really good spirit . . .' (smiles) Of course I moaned a bit.
PK: The backdrop to all this was the Troubles. What about the IRA bombing campaign in England, the effect it had during your time at Forest?
MO'N: Yeah, we had the Birmingham bombings in '74 and obviously Guildford. I think every Irish person was affected by it - it didn't matter whether you were a porter or a sportsman, you felt affected by it.
PK: Were you abused for it?
MO'N: The players generally were very protective towards me and with Birmingham being so close, it was only 40-odd miles from Nottingham, there was obviously a strong anti-Irish feeling. But there were no derogatory remarks; no one ever started anything.
PK: Two months after Birmingham, in January 1975, you get a new manager at Forest when . . .
MO'N: Clough arrives.
PK: There's probably a book in your relationship with him.
MO'N: Well, sometimes its exaggerated we definitely did not get on for long, long periods.
MO'N: A number of reasons: Do you remember Churchill's statement about Attlee: "He's a modest man and has plenty to be modest about." It was a bit like that. He would have thought I was arrogant but had nothing to be arrogant about. I think I irritated him, although he put me straight into the side, so he must have seen something in me. But I did have a genuinely tough time. And I think I was always trying to prove him wrong rather than John Robertson, my old friend, proving him right.
PK: Did the fact that he loved Robertson make you try harder? Spur you to greater things?
MO'N: Probably, but I'm not sure I saw it like that. John used to say to me: "Listen, Martin, for all the things you think of him - you play! You play the games!"
MO'N: And it's true, the year (1978) we won the league I played in 38 of the 42 games! He was at his best then, he had a point to prove against Leeds United and he was hungry for it. He had charisma coming out of his boots - was always heading off to Parkinson or pontificating on TV - but a terrific manager who worked brilliantly with Peter Taylor and taught us the game. I was talking about this to Roy (Keane) - we were echoing each other - but for a complicated man he preached simplicity. The game is simple, really simple, absolutely simple. He'd say: "Do your job, and if you do it really well, you can afford some time to go and help your mate."
PK: Yeah, I think Roy said the same this week.
MO'N: And I hear it from Bill Belichick, the coach of New England (Patriots), all the time. I wouldn't try and copy Clough, I think you can be your own person, but he was an education for us all. He got his credibility from winning and for five years we were winning, and having the time of our life. And you thought it would never end. You thought you were going to stay 26 for the rest of your life.
4 Save and prosper
McGuire is not convinced by the argument that O'Neill's positive and considerate approach to his players was a reaction to the abuse he suffered under Clough at Forest: "I think it was more a case that he realised that playing football is not just about ability. It's about maximising what you've got, getting the best out of that individual. If it suited he was not afraid to distance himself from somebody and slaughter them. You need intelligence for that, a bit of foresight, and most of all an ability to be able to suss people out. That's why some people want to follow, some want to lead and others want to direct. The only people who can direct, I believe, are those who have that ability to get the best out of every individual - slaughtering one, distancing yourself from another, patting somebody on the back four times a week, whatever it takes. That's the ability he's got."
'Martin O'Neill: The Biography'
PK: The path that leads to your return to Ireland begins on February 2, 1985. You're a month shy of your 33rd birthday and being carried off on a stretcher at Meadow Lane during a game against Shrewsbury.
PK: Did you know that was the end?
MO'N: I knew that a cruciate ligament injury in those days would probably take a year to come back. And I tried to come back. My contract with Notts County was up but I worked from October to March with a physiotherapist in Sheffield and thought my knee was strong enough to lift Hillsborough Stadium but it just buckled when I tried to play, and I knew that was the end.
PK: So March of '86?
MO'N: Yeah. Northern Ireland had qualified for the World Cup in Mexico and I did some work for the BBC. I was missing football and started to apply for some jobs in the lower leagues, thinking that a European Cup winner would have a decent chance of getting interviewed but it was just rejection after rejection.
PK: And sometimes not even the courtesy of a reply?
MO'N: Absolutely. That's when it hits you. You can be parading the European Cup at a civic reception with 250,000 people clapping for you, and a couple of years later you will pass the same place and people won't know you. That's the nature of the game.
PK: But the reality is that you've a wife and two daughters to support. You have to find a job?
PK: And it's Sammy Nelson, a former Northern Ireland team-mate, who gets you a start in insurance?
MO'N: Sammy was very astute - witty and very personable - I liked him a great deal. And it was Sammy who told me that the company he was working for had an office in Nottingham.
PK: 'Save and Prosper.'
MO'N: Yes. I enjoyed it there and was made a manager very quickly. There were a number of men there who had been salesmen for years and could have bought and sold me but I was able to give them incentives to come into the office and do more work. And that was good because I felt: 'How much more comfortable would I be with a subject . . .'
PK: That you knew?
PK: Was that the first sense you had of your people skills?
MO'N: Yeah, probably, because if you'd told me when I was younger: "Hey son, when you're 33 you're going to have to talk for a living!" Noooo, I wouldn't have done that. I was a listener, and hopefully to a certain extent, I still am.
PK: You tried some journalism as well.
MO'N: I was asked to do a few columns, yes, and didn't mind it. But I wanted to do it perfectly and couldn't make the deadlines. I'd write something I thought was nice and think: 'I just want to change a bit here.' And they'd say: 'Would you just please send it. Send it now!'
PK: (laughs): That rings a bell.
MO'N: And eventually they got fed up with me. What it did do was make me think, something I had not done intellectually for quite some time. I had stopped reading books, and was having to use the dictionary for words I knew when I was 12.
PK: That's interesting.
MO'N: Yeah, football was a great life in many ways but it stopped you using your brain.
PK: So there's a two-year gap between being stretchered off at Meadow Lane to your first job as a football manager at Grantham?
PK: Two years of what it is to be 'normal' again. Or live a normal life?
MO'N: You've got it. I was not used to normality.
PK: Which can be pretty terrifying?
MO'N: It is. Suddenly I can see what people actually do from morning to night. And do you know what? It made me more determined than ever to get back to the world I was used to. (Laughs) I thought: 'Playing is what it's all about but management might not be too bad.'
PK: Grantham was about as low as you could get on the ladder.
MO'N (Smiles): The Beezer Homes (League) Midland division.
PK: You're given a Ford Escort and 60 quid a week?
MO'N: But had to pay my own petrol and tax.
PK: You coax Mick McGuire, a former team-mate, out of retirement. He says he saw a side of you that still applies today - that the game was about managing people and that you had an innate knowledge of what made people tick.
MO'N: I actually don't think, certainly not until recently, that my management, or man management, has really changed a great deal in my time.
PK: You say "until recently?"
MO'N: I say until recently because you have to consider it a bit more - players now are a bit more mollycoddled.
PK: They're wired differently?
MO'N: Absolutely. There's a feeling with some of them, because of the way the game has treated them, which is very well indeed, that they shouldn't be balled out in any way. But if Alex Ferguson had to change with the record he had, then I think we all have to look at it differently. But hopefully not that differently.
PK: So, two seasons at Grantham, a short period at Shepshed and then five seasons at Wycombe Wanderers where your stock begins to rise.
PK: Then a brief spell at Norwich and five terrific years at Leicester where you're being spoken about as the man to succeed Alex Ferguson and are tipped by the great man himself in an interview with the BBC in 2001. By then you're at Celtic, which in some ways was a curious move. Today it would be regarded as a step backwards.
MO'N: Well, I'm going to tell you, and maybe it's to my detriment, but I never planned a managerial career and I think the length of time I stay at clubs would suggest that. I've never planned anything because I am totally aware of the nature of this game: you can be flavour of the month, flavour of the week, you can actually, remarkably, be flavour-of-the-minute. That's the game. I loved Celtic. I wouldn't have left Leicester for anybody else. I know we had just sold (Emile) Heskey a couple of months earlier, but we had won the League Cup, finished in the top 10 again and we wanted to plough on and invest the Heskey money. And then the chance to manage Celtic came up.
PK: A phone call from Dermot Desmond?
MO'N: Dermot, through Alex Ferguson.
PK: Explain that to me.
MO'N: Ferguson phoned me up and said, "Would you take a call from Dermot Desmond?" So Alex Ferguson was the one who recommended me. Did I want to go to Celtic? Yeah I did, because it was all of the things (his childhood/background) we have talked about. They were having a tough time against Rangers and I thought: 'I can put this right.'
PK: And you did.
MO'N: Well, it was what I wanted to do. I wanted to take on that challenge and see if we could wrest those Championships away from Rangers, and it was just a magical time. I loved it.
PK: You compared the despair of losing the Hogan final to the day you lost the Championship to Rangers on the final day of the season in 2005.
MO'N: Yeah, a real sickener.
PK: The Porto game (the 2003 UEFA Cup final) is the one that sticks out for me. Was that not sickening?
MO'N: Really sickening, absolutely. They were a talented bunch, as they proved the next year by winning the Champions League but we should have won that evening. Henrik Larsson was at his best but Porto tried every trick in the book, going down, feigning injury, it was just a joke at the end. It was a young referee who never got a grip on the game, never got a grip on anything. So that was a sickener, I must admit, and obviously the making of Mourinho.
PK: Yes, that was another point.
MO'N: I think he refers to that game as a big moment in his career.
PK: He's at Manchester United now, where so many predicted you would be.
MO'N: Well again, I never set out with an ambition to go to Manchester United, if things happen, they happen.
PK: Are you seriously telling me you never thought: 'I would love that job.'
MO'N: Well, the game has changed a great deal obviously in the last 12 years with more foreign owners, and more foreign managers coming in, but I can't say it was a burning ambition, it genuinely wasn't. If I was going to leave Celtic, of course you would leave for one of the top jobs but honestly, it never burned me inside. If anything, I wanted to win the Champions League with Celtic and to try and emulate what Jock Stein had done.
PK: How did you meet Geraldine?
MO'N: Childhood. She's from Kilrea.
MO'N: That's another story.
PK: Go on.
MO'N: The parish priest, Fr Deary, was almost like a matchmaker. He used to drive up to Belfast to bring me back to Kilrea to play for the minor team. I met Geraldine at one of the carnivals, she was playing camogie, and playing it really badly, but she looked brilliant. I went to England to become a professional player and came back in the summer of '72 thinking I was the big noise, and we've known each other since then.
PK: She was diagnosed with cancer, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, in 2004. Tell me about that time and the effect it had on you.
MO'N: It obviously came as a real shock. She was diagnosed, the chemotherapy didn't really work and she had to have stem cell treatment.
PK: You left Celtic and stepped away from the game.
MO'N: I was lucky. I was in a position where I could afford to come out of work, a lot of men can't do that.
PK: Here's something you've said about that time: "Sometimes you get on in life without actually seeing what is happening in your own life."
MO'N: Yeah, I do remember saying that and it's probably true. I think you wander on in your life: you think nothing is ever going to happen to you, or to anyone close to you - anything that you see is only distant - until it arrives on your doorstep. And then you deal with it in the same manner as everybody else.
PK: Was it not different for you? Because I got a sense of that from the quote: "You don't actually see what's happening in your own life." You're a football manager, a job that is all-consuming, and because it's all-consuming you don't see it?
MO'N: Yeah, I think it's a wee bit like what the great Bill Nicholson once said - he walked his daughter up the aisle and realised he had not seen her growing up. I remember reading that when I was going into management and thinking: 'That will not happen to me.' But it does happen to you. The players finish work on the training ground and your day is just starting. There are games to go to in the evening and you come home and the children are in bed. So when something hits you like (cancer), it makes you take stock for a while until things get better again. And then you maybe lapse into the same . . .
PK: Old habits?
PK: The game is all consuming but it's a huge adrenaline buzz.
PK: You stepped away for 14 months until Geraldine was feeling better. When did you start to feel the draw of it again?
MO'N: I had an interview for the England job, I was on a shortlist, in early 2006. Then the opportunity came up to go to Aston Villa and that adrenaline buzz you talk about hits you immediately.
PK: Did you miss it when you didn't have it?
MO'N: I think, very obviously, yes. I didn't have any time to miss it in the first six months but from February 2006, when things in the household were going better, I would say yes.
PK: So three years at Villa.
PK: And you finished . . . was it sixth every season?
MO'N: We finished 11th the first season, the first time I had ever finished out of the top 10 in the Premier League. The next three were sixth, sixth and sixth but each season improving in terms of points tally. In (my) last season we reached the League Cup final, the semi-final of the FA Cup and still had a chance of (reaching) the Champions League with two games to go. But Mr Lerner (the owner) and I didn't agree on some things and I left.
PK: It would be unnatural if you didn't take some pleasure from their demise?
MO'N: I know exactly what you are saying but funny enough, in the last season when they were really struggling, I felt sad about it. And the sadness came from the fact that Mr Lerner, when he came in first, really, really, had the club at heart.
PK: You left Villa in August 2010 and spent a long time, 14 months, out of the game?
PK: Which was odd because your 'share price' was still pretty high.
MO'N: That is true. I remember I went to a function at Old Trafford cricket ground, an Alex Ferguson 'do', and him saying to me: "Don't stay out of the game too long." And it was only then that maybe I realised . . .
PK: I can't believe you didn't have options at that time?
MO'N: I suppose leaving Aston Villa probably had an effect on me. I really did want to pursue it and push on and if we had been going in the opposite direction - finished sixth and then 10th and then 15th - I would gladly have handed over the reins. Anyway, we didn't see eye-to-eye and I spent some time brewing over it for a while.
PK: You took the Sunderland job in December 2011.
MO'N: Yeah, I have this joke now that every manager who goes in seems to be "saving Sunderland". I came in just before Christmas. They were third bottom. We won a lot of games to begin with and got to the end of the season and I think the only (player) the owner wanted to change was the centre-forward - (Nicklas) Bendtner who was on loan from Arsenal. I didn't see it like that I must admit and the next season was a struggle. I think we would have stayed up but (the owner) called it quits and brought in (Paolo) Di Canio, a very fine footballer but a lot to learn about management. And for all his boasting, he took eight points in the last seven games and finished a position below where (I) had left them.
PK: Was that hurtful for you?
PK: It's the first time you've tasted failure?
MO'N: Yeah, the first time somebody had said, 'You've not done well enough'. It was really tough to take.
PK: Okay, let's talk about Ireland.
5 The writing on the wall
Clough had done a pretty thorough job of knocking the self-belief out of him with his put-downs, and even for someone of O'Neill's privileged academic background and prodigious sporting talent it must have had an effect whether or not he recognized it or admitted to it. "He didn't always have the greatest confidence in his own ability," Balfe confirmed. "As with all focused people, he would chase himself harder than anyone else. Like a Roy Keane. There was this inner turmoil. Driven people want to prove it to themselves on a daily basis. I think anybody who's successful in what they do fears failure. When I see him on TV now, I see the same things."
'Martin O'Neill: The Biography'
PK: You were interviewed for the England job and I'm sure you had countless offers to manage Northern Ireland but eight months after leaving Sunderland you take the Republic of Ireland job?
MO'N: I was well aware of the differences between club management and international management, and there was a feeling I should wait (for a club) and not leave that Sunderland episode hanging around. I mulled over it and eventually thought: 'Why not?' I wanted it to appeal to me, and tried to convince myself it was appealing to me, but felt that the only way it would appeal to me was if we qualified.
PK: By any measure it was an outstanding appointment. What took it to another level was the unveiling of your number two. When was your first time to meet Roy Keane?
MO'N: I think I might have been introduced to him when I was visiting John Robertson, during the early days of his career at Nottingham Forest. But I had no contact with him at all, other than on the field of play when I was managing Leicester. The first time I met him properly was when we did some Champions League games for ITV.
PK: After he had retired?
PK: How did the reality measure up the perception?
MO'N: I thought, considering the image he had, that he was very good company. He was self-effacing in many aspects and far from moody. There's a good generation and a half between us, 18 or 19 years difference, and we talked about football.
PK: You shared a common bond with Clough.
MO'N: That is true.
PK: Did that come up in your first dealings with him?
MON: I'm sure it did. And while Roy obviously appreciated how good a manager he was, I would have argued that I'd had Clough at his best, before he started drinking and was hungry for success.
PK: How did he become the assistant manager?
MO'N: John Delaney asked if I was bringing somebody along. I said, "Yeah, I want to bring Roy Keane with me." I thought that might be a prickly subject but in fairness John said: "That's your call."
PK: And it was your call? You instigated it?
MO'N: Of course. If I hadn't met him on those occasions (at ITV) I probably wouldn't have thought of Roy Keane as an assistant manager. And I'm sure Roy wouldn't have thought of being an assistant manager, because when you've tasted management yourself, when you've made the decisions, you want to be the manager. But I think the circumstances were right for him at the time.
PK: What about you? Were you not big enough to take the job on your own? You didn't need to do this?
MO'N: No, but there was a bit of excitement about it. He was a big figure, not just in the Republic of Ireland but throughout Europe. And I know he divides opinion but I felt it would awaken the country and give it a great lift. Now that's only temporary, if you don't win some football matches, and we had a long time to wait before we played Georgia in our first competitive game. But the little trips we had with the team were great. We went to America that year and while we were decimated with injuries, and the results were not so good, it was one of the best trips we could have had. It gave us the chance to get to know each other better, which was as important as getting to know the team.
PK: Tony Balfe, a former chairman of yours at Grantham, suggested once that you were both driven by inner turmoil and weren't that unalike. Do you see that?
MO'N: That's interesting. He might not be a million miles off the mark. I see managers who have done absolutely nothing in the game swaggering in and taking defeat like it didn't matter. Like it was, you know, a bag of sweets on the counter or something: 'Hmmm . . . yeah . . . I might have to pay for those.' Sorry, a hopeless analogy. Yeah, I take defeat very, very personally and took defeat as a player very personally, was last out of the dressing room every time. And I think Roy is the same.
PK: You mentioned that he "divides opinion." Have there been times when you've wondered if some of the baggage he brings . . . sorry, baggage is a loaded word. Have there been times when let's say those aspects of his personality that inflame people opinion, and earn headlines in the media, have been an irritation for you?
PK: Because you looked irritated at a recent press conference when you were asked about speculation that he was in the running for the Celtic job and whether you had prepared for "life after Roy". You said: "Well, up until a couple of years ago, Roy Keane wasn't really in my life and I survived. And I'm sure, if health allows me, I will survive."
PK: There was the launch of his book before the Germany game, the incident in Portmarnock when the guards were called. Was that not irritating? Not what he had done but the fact that you were being questioned constantly about it?
MO'N: Honestly, no, because (1) I appointed him, and (2) I knew these things would come up. I knew Saipan in some shape or form would raise its head and I made a joke about it the other night in Cork. I said (about the training camp): "It's a good job the bibs have arrived." And I think Roy can take that. So it's not a problem at all.
PK: What about his criticism of Aiden McGeady, Jeff Hendrick and Daryl Murphy last week and the point made by Kevin Kilbane: "I think Roy was bang out of order with what he said, particularly about Aiden. He is the assistant manager and you have got to know your role." Is that not a problem?
MO'N: Well, Roy apologised to the lads in question and to the team in general. I think he felt himself, having seen in print what had happened, that it was too aggressive. But the players have taken it. James McClean said: "We needed a shift, we didn't do well enough." But overall I think the players are pleased that Roy apologised.
PK: He is still doing press conferences?
PK: You were never going to say: "Sorry Roy, you've caused enough trouble, I'll take them from now on."
MO'N: Sometimes you want a break because you're saying the same things. And they (the press) ask for Roy. They're eager to hear what he has to say.
PK: Of course, because he'll call it - he can't help himself.
MO'N: That's right, but as I've said, I knew I was getting all of that.
PK: I'm interested in how your relationship has developed. You said in an interview on Monday that the Scotland game (the 1-1 draw last June 23) had brought you closer together? Here's the quote: "Roy has been great. I actually think it was that evening after the Scotland game that the two of us drew even closer. We don't normally eat together but after that game when people were saying we wouldn't qualify Roy and I were really tight. He was buoyant. 'This isn't over.'"
MO'N: I think Roy had some of his family over, and so we had breakfast (together) the next morning. He genuinely believed it wasn't over, and I absolutely believed it myself and you draw something from that.
PK: Which strengthens the bond between you?
PK: What are the positives he brings to the team?
MO'N: Well, he's still a big figure all over Europe - we were in Sweden the other day (Sunday) and he's instantly recognised. And why not? He led Manchester United for a decade to all sorts of glory. And he brings that stature to the team. He's an iconic figure to the younger players but that respect will only last 19 minutes if you're not delivering. And he delivers.
PK: Talk to me about the win over Germany. The last time the stadium rocked like that was against Holland in 2001. How did it rate in the career of Martin O'Neill?
MO'N: It was obviously a great result to beat the world champions considering they had come here earlier (October, 2012) and stuck six past the team. But where would it have stood had we not qualified? That's the way I look at it. For me, the night we beat Bosnia was a greater night because of the finality to it: "We've made it. This means something."
PK: Your first defeat as Ireland manager was a friendly against Serbia in March 2014 when we, to my eyes, looked totally outclassed. I watched you that night and wondered what you were thinking, because it wasn't what you told us. I was sure it was: 'What the fuck have I done here!'
MO'N: What would be the point?
PK: Yeah but . . .
MO'N: You've taken (the job) on. You don't know the players personally but you've seen them play at club level and know their abilities. So you know what you're taking on and you want to change it. The team had had a disappointing qualification for the World Cup that looked, from a distance, to be a hangover from what had happened (at the Euros) in Poland. So confidence was down, but I never felt the players didn't want to play for their country.
PK: Was there never a moment you thought it was a mistake?
MO'N: I had a chance to leave (an offer from a Premier League club) after the Scotland game but I couldn't have done that; I couldn't have people saying, 'He saw the writing on the wall.' But to answer your question: I never thought after three games: 'Christ Almighty! I've dropped a ricket here!' I wanted to try and qualify.
PK: How are you feeling on the eve of the tournament?
MO'N: At this stage I always get nervously excited but I would compare it with Celtic, and a trip I made to Perth one night for a 'do' about four months after I had arrived. There were about 150 people there and regardless of how they were dressed - well or otherwise - they all had a season ticket. I drove home and thought: 'Jesus!' It brought home what the club meant to them. And I feel that way with this. There's that same weight of responsibility. You want to make a mark. There'll be thousands of fans supporting you at the games and millions back home with expectations of the team. And you, as the manager, you feel that.
PK: Is it a nice feeling?
MO'N: I'll let you know when the competition is over.
Sunday Indo Sport