Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 1 November 2014

He's the talk of football but remains an enigma ...who is Martin O'Neill?

The high-flying manager's future is looking uncertain after his dramatic weekend sacking by Sunderland. Ivan Little looks at what makes him tick

Sunderland sacked Martin O'Neill and appointed the controversial Paolo Di Canio in his place
Sunderland sacked Martin O'Neill and appointed the controversial Paolo Di Canio in his place

Football writers have almost run out of words to describe Martin O'Neill. But, for starters, they usually settle on 'complicated', 'intense' and 'intelligent', and end up by admitting they don't really know the man at all.

The deep-thinking 61-year-old, who fell foul of his beloved GAA for playing soccer, once told a gathering of young people at Aras an Uactharain in Dublin: "I'm full of anomalies, ironies, paradoxes and downright contradictions."

The sixth-born child of a nationalist family from Kilrea spoke of his pride as a Catholic at captaining Northern Ireland, but revealed he used to joke that Protestant fans initially booed him on to Windsor Park. But he also recalled with affection the close bond between all his team-mates in the troubled 1980s when the Protestants would sing loyalist songs and the Catholics would respond with nationalist ones.

In his autobiography, Norman Whiteside from the loyalist Shankill Road area of Belfast wrote in glowing terms about O'Neill, and said he never "allowed his intelligence to isolate him from the boys".

At that aforementioned talk in Dublin, O'Neill's host was President Mary McAleese. They'd studied law at Queen's University but O'Neill dropped out to become a professional footballer at Nottingham Forest in 1971. He was a key part of Forest's golden era under Brian Clough a few years later.

There was speculation that O'Neill would go back to the law after his playing days were over.

"I always thought that was the path he would take," said a man who knew him well in his early days in Belfast with clubs like Malachians and Distillery. "He had brains to burn."

Indeed, he admitted to uncertainty over his future. In a 1982 book which I co-edited before Northern Ireland's participation in the World Cup Finals in Spain, he replied to a question about his post-playing career by saying "I haven't really decided".

O'Neill, with close friend John Robertson usually as his right-hand man, decided to become a manager and, starting at the bottom with clubs Grantham Town and Shepshed Charterhouse, he rose through the divisions with Wycombe Wanderers, Norwich City and Leicester City. But it was at Celtic that he experienced the highs of football and the lows of family life, after he quit to care for his wife when she was diagnosed with cancer.

O'Neill said he had "five wonderful years in his spiritual home" in Glasgow and he almost won the Uefa Cup in 2003 when Celtic lost to Jose Mourinho's Porto.

There was speculation that he would eventually manage Manchester United or Liverpool, and he was interviewed for the job of England manager. But O'Neill's return wasn't with one of England's most fashionable teams, but rather with Aston Villa, which he left after four years.

His departure from Sunderland at the weekend was his first sacking and there have been questions over whether he'll ever manage in the Premiership again.

But TV companies will be lining up to recruit him as a pundit and it would be a foolish man who'd rule him out of a comeback in the manager's dug-out.

"There's maybe a seat waiting for him at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin," said his former Belfast associate, in relation to growing speculation that the Football Association of Ireland could soon come calling.

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