Belfast Telegraph

Republic of Ireland boss Martin O'Neill is a high quality arrival into Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards Hall of Fame

By Steven Beacom

Marvellous player, magnificent manager and one of the most fascinating individuals in sport, the fabulous Martin O'Neill has been inducted into the Belfast Telegraph Hall of Fame.

The 63-year-old from Kilrea in county Londonderry was honoured at last night's Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards, joining an elite band of sporting icons from Northern Ireland.

As the Republic of Ireland manager walked towards the stage to receive his award from close friends and former international team-mates Pat Jennings and Gerry Armstrong, he received a wonderful reception from the packed audience at the Ramada Hotel in Belfast.

It was an acknowledgement of his popularity amongst the sporting fraternity of Northern Ireland and recognition of a remarkable career which is still going strong.

Martin Hugh Michael O'Neill truly is something else, deserving his place in our Hall of Fame.

Being together again with big Pat and Gerry brought back a host of memories for Martin, not least the daring deeds of the 1982 World Cup squad which famously shocked the universe by beating Spain 1-0 in their own bullring.

O'Neill was captain on that epic night in Valencia, Armstrong scored the winner and Jennings kept the Spaniards out at the other end.

Thirty years earlier, one of the most talked about Northern Ireland sports stars was born.

Initially, a young Martin played GAA before he started out on a football career that would take him all around the globe.

O'Neill played for Distillery and even as a teenager he showed a liking for the big occasion, scoring twice in an Irish Cup final victory over Derry City in 1971. The following season he netted against Barcelona in Europe.

It was hardly surprising that English clubs soon became interested in the energetic youngster with an eye for goal.

Soon O'Neill was on his way to Nottingham Forest. You won't be shocked to learn that he scored on his league debut in 1971.

It wasn't all success though because Forest encountered a few lean years before a certain Brian Clough became manager.

That changed everything. Under Clough, O'Neill won the league title and League Cup and two European Cups in 1979 and 1980, though he only started in the latter final.

Few players ever spoke back to Clough but O'Neill had enough belief in himself to do so when he felt the need.

Learning at the feet of the master, some old Forest players say Cloughie was taught a few lessons by Martin.

After leaving Forest, O'Neill played for Norwich City, Manchester City and Notts County, but his best days were gone, not helped by a knee injury that eventually forced him to retire in 1985 when he had been hoping to make the Northern Ireland 1986 World Cup squad.

O'Neill won 64 caps in total and scored eight international goals and is rightly regarded as a Northern Ireland great.

Anyone who had ever come into contact with O'Neill the player felt he would go on to become O'Neill the manager.

He started out at non-league and would earn rave reviews at Wycombe Wanderers prior to taking over at Norwich in 1995.

If a short spell at Carrow Road didn't work out, his time in charge of Leicester would eventually become the stuff of legend.

He guided the Foxes to promotion to the Premier League, established them in the top flight, won two League Cups and led them into Europe.

In 2000 he moved on to become boss of Celtic, where the success continued. All of the domestic trophies were secured, as was a Uefa Cup final in 2003 when the Hoops lost to Jose Mourinho's Porto.

Five years after his appointment, the father of two daughters left Parkhead to care for his ill wife Geraldine. A year later he returned to management with Aston Villa. They finished sixth in the Premier League on three occasions under him.

Much like his spell at his boyhood club Sunderland which followed, he never received the recognition his efforts deserved at Villa.

Over the years many Northern Ireland fans had hoped O'Neill would become manager of the country he played for with distinction.

In 2013 though he took over as Republic of Ireland boss and has inspired them to reach the Euro 2016 finals.

Martin's is a career filled with highlights and you get the feeling he is not finished yet.

Martin O'Neill is a welcome addition to the Belfast Telegraph Hall of Fame.

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