'I think I can do any job. Please - that's not bravado'
Martin O'Neill relies on his 'gut instinct' and it's a policy that has served him well, writes Dion Fanning
As people get older, Martin O'Neill says, they try and trace everything in their personality back to their childhood. He's not so sure the answers are always there. Life has told him that little is easily explained. He is reflecting on his own defiance, his refusal, as he put it recently, "to let people hammer the crap out of me."
"I'd love to turn around and tell you, just to make harrowing reading, that it was appalling, but I loved my childhood. It was great, growing up in a big family, a big Irish Catholic family and I was the middle one so I kind of got cosseted along the way and I got very, very lucky."
It is Thursday morning and O'Neill is sitting in an oak-panelled room at Adare Manor's clubhouse, drinking tea from a china cup. "I am full of anomalies, ironies, paradoxes, downright contradictions," he said once, before joking, "I think I must have got all of them from my father."
O'Neill's peculiarity in football, perhaps even the secret of his success, is his willingness to acknowledge his contradictions and his humanity. In a one-dimensional world, he is seen as enigmatic because he is so honest.
The honesty was there last week as he talked about Brian Clough and Roy Keane, Jose Mourinho and the insecurities that every manager has. Without them, O'Neill says, he might not get to work in the morning. But he has needed his defiance too. It has accompanied him during the life blessed with good fortune and shadowed by life's toughest trials. At all times he needed the defiance and he has called upon it again recently.
Last Wednesday, Aston Villa beat Hull and continued their pursuit of fourth place. O'Neill got home at about 2.0 am. He knew he would be going to Adare Manor on Thursday morning but he wasn't sure how. There was some relief when he saw his transport would be a plane and not a helicopter.
O'Neill will return to play golf in Adare in July, but last week he was there to launch the JP McManus Invitational Pro-Am. He was among friends, relaxed and gregarious but occasionally he would come back to a recent afternoon that made him stand up for himself again.
At the end of March, O'Neill took his side to Stamford Bridge. When John Carew equalised after half an hour, it looked like Villa could be another to expose some vulnerability in Chelsea. Something was exposed. By the end of the afternoon, Chelsea had scored seven. O'Neill talks about "capitulation" and a season which has included two trips to Wembley looked like being defined by a 7-1 defeat.
Soon there were rumours he was about to quit. There were articles asking if he had gone as far as he could with Villa and stories suggested he had fallen out with Randy Lerner, Villa's owner, over the sale of James Milner.
A couple of days later, O'Neill looked back on the dvd of the "capitulation" and saw something else -- he saw a team looking to score when other teams would have curled up and taken their beating.
"Having said it was one of the worst days of my footballing life, I thought about it. No, I lost a UEFA Cup final, I lost a Hogan Cup final with St Malachy's in Croke Park that still rankles as a bad day and that was 1970. I lost a League Cup final to Tottenham Hotspur, so Chelsea was just a bad day at the office. But the minute I said it, a blog appears that you're thinking of resigning. Here's the interesting thing -- if you start to deny the story people think there's something in it and if you don't deny it, it rumbles on. So in the crappy old phrase, you're between a rock and a hard place. Then you end up having to defend your position and in defence of my position I thought, 'Enough of this self-deprecating nonsense'."
So he fought on, as he has before and he will again. It was not his childhood, he says, that made him feel this way but he observed himself change as a teenager and, more importantly, he observed how others responded to that change.
"As a young kid, about 14, 15, 16, I really fancied myself and I thought there wasn't anything I couldn't do and I lost that. I lost that kind of arrogance. Don't get me wrong, as a professional footballer there are times when you can be arrogant and you think the world owes you a living and you are a bit special and all that type of stuff -- it's just not true. But I lost that arrogance -- I didn't mind losing the arrogance -- and I went down this self-deprecating route, do you know? And I realised this was nonsense.
"If I could teach my daughters to do anything else but be self-deprecating . . . Listen, you can be as nicely mannered to somebody but stand your ground. What happens -- this is what I wanted to say -- is that the minute you are self-deprecating and take responsibility for everything, the people want to hammer you. I know this in life because that means that they have allowed their own responsibility to dissipate."
There were moments in his life that may have shaped this attitude more than growing up in Derry. He famously decided to abandon law at Queen's University to join Nottingham Forest in 1971. It might not have been noted by many outside his family had Brian Clough not arrived at Forest four years later. Clough would take care of the deprecating for the two of them.
"That is when you had to stand up for yourself. Brian was a fantastic manager, one of the best, he would have been great in any era, no doubt about it. He might have found it more difficult nowadays because of player power. In my day, players had no power and that suited Brian Clough right down to the ground. Right down to the ground."
Their relationship was prickly and difficult. O'Neill was not the only player to find Clough unfathomable but he was one of the few to prosper while trying to get to the bottom of his manager's personality. A biography of O'Neill has him asking a friend during that time why Clough "hated" him. It is not language he is as comfortable with today.
"Hate is very, very strong but it was only in later times that I realised that it wasn't the case. He thought that I was a bit arrogant yet I thought I'd lost that arrogance which I talked about at about 17. I'd love to know who's right. Honestly I think I lost it somewhere along the way."
Clough arrived at a side which seemed comfortable in the old second division. Yet nobody appointed Clough for an easy ride. "When he arrived at Forest, he didn't even think any of us were all that great because we were a two-bit second division club that had been relegated a few years ago and had made no sign of getting back. We were a group of young players, myself, John Robertson, Viv Anderson, Tony Woodcock. He started to appreciate us a wee bit more, he added a few senior players but that appreciation took some time."
Those young players would become European Cup winners. O'Neill's great friend and managerial assistant, Roberston, was Clough's unlikely hero, but the story was not as unlikely as is sometime portrayed.
"This idea that he made John Roberston -- he did make John Robertson a great player but he didn't make John Robertson a great player the next morning. It took time. In fact, he thought he was a fat, little bastard and it did take time."
O'Neill never felt the same patience was extended to him. Robertson became Forest's match-winner while O'Neill was instructed to work hard. There were rewards, but no encouragement and when the first European Cup final -- who knew there would be a second? -- came round, O'Neill, coming back from a hamstring injury, was left out. Clough disagreed with the player over his fitness.
"John Robertson always says to me, 'For all your talk about Brian Clough, you played in all the big games'. If I had not been injured for the first European Cup final, which I make a big song and dance about, then he might have had a decision to make. But the fact is I did play in most of the big games."
He wouldn't use the word 'hate'. "Maybe I would turn that hate into positive dislike."
Clough was the defining figure of the 1970s and the defining manager in O'Neill's career. "You had to really fight for yourself and he came in with a couple of pre-conceived notions about things and you were having to fight that all the time. I didn't in my early days of knowing him appreciate what a really good manager he was because you're a player, you're fighting for yourself, you only see it through your eyes, you're trying to fight for your position in the team, you're trying to stay in the team, you're trying to improve. And, of course, if you get left out of the team, life is desperate. Whereas, as a manager, you're just seeing an upstart in front of you and you're trying to look after a load of other things and try to keep that upstart in his place. That's what I see now which I didn't see then."
In his ability to get the best out of players, O'Neill has been compared to Clough but he agrees there are as many differences as similarities. As a manager, he says, you can't be what you're not so it is futile to mimic Clough. "I don't think that you can copy him. Because you would always be wondering what he would have done in that situation. I think you have to have a gut instinct and go with a gut instinct."
Clough would have succeeded in any era but he says he defines the times too. "It's like watching a film like Up The Junction that captures 1967. If ever there was a manager that suited the times, it was him."
Circumstance suited him too, but while his view on his relationship with Clough has changed, he has also altered his view of Clough's self-belief.
"He was in a provincial club where he had the full running of things with a point to prove having been sacked by Leeds United but with, eh . . . with, eh, what shall I say, an outward display of confidence which I think nowadays maybe wasn't exactly what he was feeling inside all the time."
Clough was true to a version of himself which maybe is the best that anyone can do.
Roy Keane as a manager is another who has been compared in style to Clough. O'Neill is on friendly terms with Keane, but has never sat down and had a conversation with him.
"I think Keane's a very, very interesting character. He would look through you with those eyes as if you didn't exist and he can be as warm as the next man if he feels comfortable in the surrounds -- maybe that's part of the thing I like about him."
He feels Keane has his own adaptation process to go through as well. "I was disappointed he left Sunderland. Yeah, of course, you can be arguing with a lot of people and maybe at some stage you think enough is enough. I was disappointed because I thought he had been doing very, very well there. You'll get hiccups along the way and maybe things weren't happening for Roy as quickly as he wanted things done. His career as a footballer just went like that, didn't it," he says, rocketing his hand towards the ceiling. "In management you sometimes have to plateau a little bit and there can be a downside before you go up but I've often said that Keane can be anything he wants to be."
If Keane as a player was a manifestation of his personality, then O'Neill sees his managerial style as being true to that version of himself.
"Here's one of the things I like about him as a manager. He's gone to Ipswich and he's said something like 'If I don't get this club up in two years I'll have failed'. He's putting pressure on himself immediately. That's his nature."
Yet, he says, management is different. Ferguson had Keane to represent him on the pitch but there aren't many managers as lucky. "He's putting pressure on himself because he wants to succeed. He was such a wonderful player and everything happened because he could dictate on the field what happened. You lose that power as a manager. It's not as if this game is like American football and every play you can go back to the coach and the coach can set something up because the game's stop-start. You're depending on some people carrying out, not only your tactics for the day, but your whole plan for the year. And you're depending on other people. Roy has to depend on people which has not always been in his nature."
With Keane, as with Clough, O'Neill knows that we do not see the whole story. His first chairman once said of him that he sometimes didn't have "confidence in himself". It is a statement he is at first puzzled by, then becomes more comfortable with.
"He may well have a point and this may go back to the childhood stuff. It's interesting that because I'm sure there isn't a person in this life who outwardly exudes great confidence like a Brian Clough but doesn't sit in of an evening on his own and actually wonder and concern himself. I'm quite sure that's the case. I'm actually even sure that it's the case with Mourinho."
Naturally, he is fascinated by Mourinho and he wonders if, when he is at his brashest, he isn't concealing the doubt. When Mourinho talked about Chelsea before Inter played them, he claimed they had done nothing since he left despite, as O'Neill says, being a penalty-kick away from winning the European Cup.
"The interesting thing is fast forward to the other evening when he was talking about Barcelona complaining about the referee, and he said 'my Chelsea boys'. He didn't just slip that in -- now it's his Chelsea boys and if they go on and win the double, he's already set the case, 'Ah well, it's only my team anyway'. I don't know whether that is utter bravado or whether there's a wee bit of self-doubt creeping in somewhere."
There is no job, he says, that would concern him. Self-doubt, he says, is an essential part of getting the job done. "I think that sort of insecurity is the thing that drives you on. When I was a player, I signed four one-year contracts at Nottingham Forest thinking I would be better next year. I never worried about a five-year deal. As a manager, I've done the same. I'm on a one-year rolling contract; if I was looking for utter security I should be trying to think about four or five years, but it's never bothered me because I think, 'I'll do something'."
In the summer, they will talk about the future at Villa. He sees no reason for a player like James Milner to leave, he also sees little validity in some of the recent criticism of the manager. There is always a counterpoint to his position. He remembers turning down Nottingham Forest when he was at Wycombe and being accused of lacking ambition. Then he left to go to Norwich and he was told he had left them in the lurch.
Nowadays, it is worse because of the immediacy of opinion, most of it unreflective. Yet he keeps going, defiant and self-critical, accepting of his paradoxes.
Today, Villa play Birmingham, fighting against the odds for fourth place, fighting a financial juggernaut like Manchester City.
"I'm genuinely enjoying it. If I didn't enjoy it I would have to think about getting out. I said recently that sometimes when I get up in the morning I have to find an excuse to make it worthwhile. That was tongue-in-cheek. I do enjoy it and it keeps me going."
But the arrival of City might have changed things for clubs like Villa. "You're going along merrily and then something like Manchester City appears on the horizon that makes you reappraise the whole thing and think, 'Where are you going?' I wouldn't use the word disheartening because you have to always go and fight these things but it was something nobody would have foreseen."
He will fight on and the summer might bring more speculation and, as vacancies appear, O'Neill will be linked with them. In the past he has sometimes hesitated but now, after Celtic, after everything, there are fewer doubts.
"Too much has happened in my life, both personally and in a professional sense, for me to concern myself about things. I think I can do any job."
He is speaking the truth but he pauses before emphasising that this is not just lip service, it remains consistent with everything he has said, especially the contradictions. "Please -- that's not bravado."