Friday 27 April 2018

From a Derry council house to Ireland manager

Bad-cop routine: Martin O'Neill and fellow football pundit Roy Keane who are now the Republic's 'dream team'
Bad-cop routine: Martin O'Neill and fellow football pundit Roy Keane who are now the Republic's 'dream team'
O'Neill in the 1970s
John Meagher

John Meagher

The pictures on the wall in the front room of the Derry council house Martin O'Neill grew up in tell their own story. One was The Sacred Heart of Jesus, the other Pádraig Pearse – a testament to the devout Catholicism and strong sense of patriotism that were part of the formative years of Ireland's new football manager.

O'Neill's religious faith may not be as outwardly visible as his pride in his Irishness today, but the man from Foyleside who has an OBE to his name, has never forgotten his roots.

In an address to Áras an Uachtaráin in 2008, he mentioned how amazed he was that 50-odd years after being born into a working-class Irish nationalist background he would find himself interviewed by the Football Association about the possibility of managing the England national team.

He wasn't to get the job – the FA would break the bank to secure the signing of the Italian heavyweight, Fabio Capello – but it was a sign of the high regard with which O'Neill has long been held in football.

Just three years earlier he had quit a high-profile job as manager of Celtic in order to care for his wife Geraldine, who had been diagnosed with cancer.

In the testosterone-fuelled world of professional football, O'Neill was applauded for putting family first and when he returned to the fray after Geraldine had got through the worst of the treatment for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, he had little trouble landing a blue riband job at Aston Villa.

O'Neill has always been seen as a different animal to the typical football manager. Along with Arsenal boss, Arsene Wenger, he has long had a professorial air about him – unsurprising, perhaps, considering the law degree he acquired just as his career in the pro-game with Nottingham Forest was taking off. It remains as unusual today as it did in O'Neill's playing heyday of the 1970s for a top-level footballer to study for a third-level qualification.

Under Forest's great and charismatic manager, Brian Clough, O'Neill enjoyed enormous success, and his medal haul includes one European Cup and one League title. (He was dropped for Forest's first European Cup final in 1979, but played in the starting XI that retained the trophy the following year.)

He was the first Catholic to captain Northern Ireland and was part of the country's golden team who reached the quarter finals of the 1982 World Cup, beating hosts Spain along the way.

While his future captain at Celtic, Neil Lennon, would be forced to quit the national team due to sectarian abuse, O'Neill rarely suffered hostility and – during his days in green-and-white – he was respected on both sides of the religious divide.

He once quipped that his primary school "did not involve Protestants or girls", but from an early age he learned to be respectful of the different traditions in the six counties. More recently, during his unsuccessful tenure as manager of the club he supported as boy, Sunderland, he tried to protect the Derry-born James McClean from the brickbats when he refused to wear a jersey with emblazoned poppy. O'Neill, as a pundit with ITV, has no problem sporting the emblem that commemorates those who died fighting for the Allies during World War II.

He will have been more aware than most of how that symbol is viewed in the city of Bloody Sunday, and he was to experience the occasional hardships of being Irish in the Britain of the 1970s.

In his spare time, the 61-year-old is said to be fixated with true-crime cold cases and has been known to visit the scenes of notorious murders. He and Geraldine have two daughters, Alana and Aisling, with the latter once bidding for pop stardom. She has put her musical aspirations on hold, but for her father it's all systems go.

Ireland expects.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport