Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

Well, Well! O’Neill is predicting more woe for Celtic

Ex-fir park hero can see another cup humiliation

Charismatic: Former Portadown midfielder Colin O’Neill became a legend at Motherwell, with his stunning Scottish Cup semi-final replay goal against Celtic in 1991 voted the best ever in the club’s history by the fans
Charismatic: Former Portadown midfielder Colin O’Neill became a legend at Motherwell, with his stunning Scottish Cup semi-final replay goal against Celtic in 1991 voted the best ever in the club’s history by the fans

Colin O'Neill talks about it as if it happened just yesterday. The charismatic and controversial former Motherwell and Northern Ireland midfielder admits other details of his colourful career are sketchy in his head, but not this.

He's referring to THAT goal as Motherwell fans describe it.

They actually voted it THE number one goal in the club's history. It came in a Scottish Cup semi-final replay at Hampden against Celtic in 1991.

The score was 2-2 at the time when the ball fell to O'Neill. Over 35 yards out he unleashed a stunning shot which rocketed into the net.

Already a cult hero with the Fir Park faithful, who had labelled him Psycho for his fierce tackling, the chunky midfielder reached iconic status for Motherwell that night as they went on to win 4-2.

Twenty years on and now 47, the straight-talking O'Neill is hoping someone else in Motherwell colours can strike for glory against Celtic in Saturday's Scottish Cup final.

He'll be at Hampden, as a guest of his old club, no doubt lapping up the cheers from their supporters, who recall his deeds from two decades ago with relish.

“We thought we had a chance of doing something special in the Scottish Cup that year after we beat Morton in a penalty shoot-out,” said O'Neill, who joined Motherwell from Portadown in 1988.

“It was 4-4 in the shoot-out and they had missed so it was up to me to win it for us. After scoring the winning penalty, I landed on the top of my neck trying to do a somersault, so perhaps that wasn't the best idea, but I was lost in the moment.

“In the semi-finals we drew with Celtic and then in the replay we were losing 2-0. We pulled it back to 2-2 setting things up for a big finish.

“I'm glad to say I stepped up to score our third goal which proved to be crucial.

“It was actually named the best goal in Motherwell's history,” adds O'Neill with a real sense of pride before joyously painting a picture of his wonder strike.

“We had a throw-in and Stevie Kirk flicked it inside to me. He told me to push it through to Nick Cusack. I thought, sod it, I'm hitting this so I did and it went into the top corner. I can still see it going in now.

“My manager Tommy McLean said to me after the match that if I had not have scored I'd have been on the boat home because Cusack was clean through!

“It was a great feeling scoring that goal. I loved it.”

After the ecstasy came agony, when he suffered a knee injury putting his appearance in the final in doubt.

O'Neill admits now that he should not have been in the

squad, but manager McLean showed a sentimental side by naming the Ulsterman on the bench and bringing him on for the final few minutes of the 4-3 victory over Dundee United.

“After beating Celtic in the semi-final I got a knee injury,” says Colin, as talented as he was tough in the centre of the park.

“To be honest I shouldn't have been involved in the final. Tommy brought me in on the Friday before the Cup final and asked me if I was fit. I said I wasn't too bad and they tried me out for the Saturday but it was no good.

“The manager, who was a hardy wee guy, said his heart was ruling his head and he kept me in the squad for scoring the winning goals in the other two matches. I came on for the last three minutes and had a shot from about 60 yards which the fans enjoyed.

“Winning the Cup that year was a great moment in Motherwell's history. We hadn't won anything from 1952. In some bars in the town the price of a pint was the same as it was in 1952. Half the people running about didn't know what day it was.”

O'Neill himself had a reputation for enjoying himself after games.

He says: “Yeah, I went out a few times. The night I scored the goal against Celtic, Davie Cooper said on TV that I would be missing for a week!

“I guess I've always had a bit of a reputation for living life to the full. Jimmy Nicholl used to say in after dinner speeches that there were 5,000 police off duty in Northern Ireland because Colin O'Neill was over in Scotland. I played up to it a bit I guess, like the hardman image. When the fans were singing Pyscho to me it would give me a buzz and I'd go in and tackle someone hard.

“When I moved to Motherwell I blattered a few boys early on and that went down well with the fans. It wasn't a case of I went over there intending to make my mark deliberately, it was just the way I played.”

Leaving Portadown, O'Neill could have starred for Dunfermline but they had to drop their interest in him as they didn't have enough money. In stepped Motherwell, and with the help of Bill McMurdo, George Best's former agent, the deal was done.

“When I went over the manager Tommy McLean told me I had to lose a stone and a half. I did that in six weeks, and then once I got in the team, I was never out of it.”

Last week in this newspaper, O'Neill condemned the attack by a Hearts fan on Celtic boss Neil Lennon at Tynecastle, adding though that the Lurgan man brings some trouble on himself.

The likelihood is that Lennon will be celebrating a Scottish Cup win on Saturday, though O'Neill believes, just like 20 years ago, a Scottish Cup shock can happen.

“It will be tight and I reckon there will only be one goal in it,” says the former Northern Ireland international.

“I do give Motherwell a chance and I’d like to see them win. I am really looking forward to being there.”

After the Scottish Cup final, his next big date is in hospital for O’Neill, whose career with Motherwell came to a premature end due to injury.

“I'm going in in June to get a titanium hip.

“Normally people don't get them until they are 65, but I need it. It’s wear and tear though the good news is I'll be walking again in three days, so I don’t see it as a big deal.”

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