Forty years ago today Nottingham Forest conquered Europe again. Gareth Hanna talks to one of the heroes of a famous triumph
"Football is about dreams, about feeling a special sensation, giving a surprise and inspiring joy."
Claudio Ranieri's Leicester City side were top of the Premier League when he summed up the game at the end of November 2015. They went on to lift the trophy but not even their unexpected Premier League title can quite match the barely believable feats of Nottingham Forest 40 years ago.
"Leicester's achievement was phenomenal in this day and age but I think if you're talking over a period of three or four years, ours would be hard to better," says Martin O'Neill, then Forest's lively right-winger. "The whole scenario of it was just crazy. Breathtaking."
It was on May 28, 1980, that young O'Neill from Kilrea, one of Leo's boys, completed a journey to the very top of the football world.
From Derry to the Bernabeu. From the Down & Connor League to winning a European Cup final, joining George Best on a Northern Irish list that still remains only two.
"European Cups when I was growing up were for the likes of Puskas and Di Stefano, for the great Real Madrid team who won it five times on the trot," he says. "Then you went into the '60s when you had Benfica, Inter Milan, Celtic in '67 - that one is just, ah, incredible because they were so brilliant as an attacking team.
"You had George Best in '68, Johann Cruyff with Ajax and then the next thing you know you're up there with them. That's how lucky you can be."
Martin Hugh Michael O'Neill had been born in Kilrea in March 1952, one of nine children to Greta and Leo.
One of his earliest sporting memories is a trip to Croke Park in 1958. Derry had reached the All-Ireland final and were attempting to bring the Sam Maguire to Ulster for the first time. It just so happened that his older brothers, Leo and Gerry, were part of the squad.
"I learned a lot from them," he says of his sporting roots. "They had a great desire to compete and that was very strong throughout the family."
His father was one of the founding members of Pádraig Pearses GAC in their home village, steeped in Gaelic games.
"But he still had a photo in his barber shop of the great Manchester United team of '58 - the Busby Babes," Martin adds.
"I loved Gaelic and I still do; I'm waiting around for Derry to win the All-Ireland again. The only soccer games I played back then would have been at the school quad but all that changed when I got to Belfast."
The O'Neills moved to the city in the late 1960s. It was there that he began his soccer career with Rosario and was soon picked up by Distillery.
The Antrim County Board were less than enamoured at this breach of Rule 27; playing a 'foreign sport'. They refused to permit the use of Casement Park for the 1971 MacRory Cup final, in which O'Neill was St Malachy's captain.
"It was ludicrous in the extreme," he says. Whatever the aims of the board - perhaps to keep O'Neill and other like-minded individuals away from the 'foreign sport' - they didn't succeed.
"Gaelic was great but there was always a possibility, remote and all as it may have seemed, to make soccer your living. Deep down, that was something I really wanted to do" he admits.
Weeks after the MacRory debacle, then 19-year-old Martin scored twice as Distillery beat Derry City 3-0 in the Irish Cup final. His life would never be quite the same again.
By the end of the year, he had netted against Barcelona in the European Cup Winners' Cup, made his Northern Ireland debut, signed for Nottingham Forest in the 'big league' of English soccer and scored against George Best's Manchester United at Old Trafford.
"I knew that making the grade in England was particularly difficult but I was going over to a league in which the most exciting player was from Belfast," he says. "All of us wanted to feel like we could be the next George Best.
"When you get to that level, the difference in ability is minuscule and therefore it's down to determination and all those things as well as a little bit of luck here and there, like everything."
Fortune has many faces and O'Neill's handful of appearances couldn't stop Forest's relegation.
Manager Matt Gillies departed a few months later and by 1975, both Dave Mackay and Allan Brown had come through the manager's office with promotion yet to be achieved.
"I didn't get on with Allan Brown too well," he says of a period in which he had been transfer-listed by request and even considered jacking it all in to return to his law studies at Queen's.
"I draw some consolation from the fact that he wasn't too enamoured with John Robertson either, who ended up being a world-class footballer."
Step forward Brian Clough - the arrival of a managerial genius a touch of fortune for the players that 'survived the cull'.
It may not have felt like it at times. Much has been said about O'Neill's supposedly fractious relationship with Old Big 'Ead; not least the manager's decision to withdraw the winger from the 1978 Charity Shield immediately after his second goal, shutting off any chance of a hat-trick.
"The trouble is," Clough said, "if I'd left you on I would have had to throw another ball on; one for you to keep to yourself and one for everybody else."
Ever a battle of wits.
"Honestly I have to say this," laughs O'Neill about his previous quotes questioning Clough's acknowledgement of his footballing ability. "I do it for effect.
"Of course, as most players would have had at some stage or another, I had run-ins with him. It would be very difficult to play all the games and not do that. You were having to prove yourself in every single game but the truth is this; if you look at the records, the year we won the league we had 42 games and I started 38 of them. I think I was sub for two more and was injured in the other two. So I really can't complain."
O'Neill doesn't need reminding that the very prospect of a Charity Shield appearance would have been laughable prior to Cloughie and, at least as significantly, assistant Peter Taylor's arrivals.
Forest were a club more used to flitting between the top two divisions, two FA Cup crowns by far their most notable achievements.
Yet in four fairytale seasons, O'Neill and his team-mates were promoted, crowned First Division Champions and then back-to-back European Cup winners.
"It was non-stop," he says, even now trying to take it all in.
"As well as that, there were League Cups, beating Barcelona to win the Super Cup and playing in a World Club Championship in Tokyo. Those were heady days."
The one that stands above the rest was 40 years ago today.
A year before, while his Forest team-mates were beating Malmo 1-0 in Munich to win their first European crown, O'Neill was an admittedly frustrated figure on the bench, sidelined with a hamstring injury despite his claims to be fit.
"I can understand it now from a managerial viewpoint," he says of Clough's decision to hold O'Neill and Archie Gemmill out of the line-up while taking a risk only on defender Frank Clark.
"You're playing in a European Cup final. What if all three of us had broken down in the first 15 minutes? Disappointed as I was, I can see that now."
As fate would have it, O'Neill's replacement Trevor Francis would head in the winner that day from a John Robertson cross.
"You always feel, you know, it's a wee bit…" he pauses, trying to explain the mixed emotions of an unused substitute in a European Cup final. "Let's go to when I was discussing it with Roy Keane. He was a massive player for Manchester United but he didn't play in the '99 Champions League final.
"Sometimes you don't even feel part of it and that's kind of a crazy feeling. Roy had scored a great goal of great importance to them in Italy against Juventus in the semi-final. But you want to play on the day. That's the day.
"At the time, I knew even great teams didn't necessarily come back the next year again so would we ever get back to another final?"
Gemmill wouldn't, dispatched to Birmingham City soon after. For O'Neill, however, there was a second chance to take the stage of Di Stefano, of Puskas, of Best.
Öster, Argeș Pitești, BFC Dynamo and Ajax were all seen off and it was Hamburg in the final at the Bernabeu - the home of that great Real Madrid side O'Neill had heard about as a boy.
It meant that the newly appointed Northern Ireland captain missed out on the Home Nations win, instead attached to a phone in a Mallorca hotel lobby.
It was understandable that he wouldn't be in international action, but just what was a European Cup finalist doing in Cala Millor less than a week before the game?
It was a question he was asking himself; the answer perhaps known only to Clough, ever the maverick.
"I think we all felt it wasn't the greatest idea," says O'Neill of the week-long sojourn that saw active match preparations not just scaled down but banned.
"But this was the manager's way. You can only ever judge something by the result and we did win the game."
That was thanks to John Robertson's 20th-minute effort, enough to see off a Hamburg side featuring permed European Player of the Year Kevin Keegan, but only thanks to the astounding defensive efforts of the entire Forest side, not least centre-halves Larry Lloyd and Kenny Burns as well as goalkeeper Peter Shilton.
"As the game goes on and you're protecting your lead, the most natural instinct in the world is to defend more deeply," says O'Neill. "We were hanging on and I was desperately wanting to win because I so wanted the feeling of actually being on the pitch and winning a European Cup medal.
"They were tough moments, the last 20 minutes. The tiredness was setting in and it seemed like three hours."
Finally, Portuguese referee António Garrido sounded the whistle and O'Neill, at last, could enjoy the pinnacle of Forest's astounding journey in all its fullness.
"It was like the best feeling in the world," he smiles, struggling to find the words to sum up the moment he ran to the Forest support, his arm around left-back Frank Gray, who held the trophy aloft.
"Those minutes are unforgettable. You can clear your mind for a little while - finally you don't have to think about Many Kaltz coming down the wing at you.
"The team met up again last year and we did feel a sense of romance; that it was a phenomenal story.
"Like everything else, as years go on, legend brings something else to the fore. But I do think at that time, we felt this was a part of history, even more when we got back to Nottingham. We went down the bus route for the crowds to gather in the square and those are the moments you think, 'These are things to cherish because they might never be seen again'. The truth is that with a team like Nottingham Forest, they have never been seen again."
But that's not to say they never will.
Football, for romantics like Ranieri and O'Neill, is about dreams, about surprises.
"You have to make your story," he says. "We all thought that Leicester City could never win the league but they did. There should be another story - sorry there will be another story."