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Colin O'Neill: 'George Best helped get me my big move and I thrived in the Parkhead and Ibrox cauldrons'

One-time 'bad boy' Colin O'Neill reflects on a colourful career that included Scottish Cup glory and NI caps

For keeps: Colin O'Neill has images of Scottish Cup and Motherwell club crest tattooed
For keeps: Colin O'Neill has images of Scottish Cup and Motherwell club crest tattooed
Memories: Colin O'Neill shows off the Scottish Cup after Motherwell's 1991 triumph
Colin with George Best
Proud moment: Colin O'Neill playing for NI
On the ball: a young Colin O'Neill in his Ballymena United days

By Jim Gracey

Colin O'Neill is sitting in our dentist's surgery petrified. He needs an errant molar removed and confides he has been awake since 5am that morning fretting about taking the chair.

"I've got white coat syndrome," he explains. "Fear of hospitals, fear of doctors, fear of dentists, especially. I get the shivers just thinking about needles and drills and pliers."

And, right enough, he shudders involuntarily.

The things you find out about people you think you know, in O'Neill's case going on 40 years.

Could this be the same Colin O'Neill who would have faced the devil on a football pitch with more than a whiff of cordite about himself?

The scourge of referees and managers who thought they could tame him? One boss who tried ended up wearing the contents of the half time cuppa.

Sent off 10 times in his four-club Irish League career, booked many more and hit with multiple bans, it is no wonder he revelled in the nickname Psycho.

Here was a player with talent to burn. That was obvious from the moment he made his breakthrough with Ards at 15. Yet all who recognised his undoubted ability feared the big time chance his skills were crying out for had also gone up in smoke as he entered his 20s still plying his trade in the Irish League, held back by his hothead reputation.

And yet, his football won out in the end over his rebellious streak, earning him a move from Portadown to Motherwell where he became a club cult figure for his part in their one and only Scottish Cup triumph in 1991 and for his combative style of play in his incident-packed and rewarding four years there.

His is proof that every rough diamond has the potential to shine when its facets are polished and its flaws smoothed over.

For O'Neill, it all went wrong before it went right and, ironically, the catalyst for his dramatic change of direction and fortune was none other than George Best, after a chance encounter in a charity match.

"I was playing on the same team as George, my hero, which was a dream in itself," explains O'Neill, coming 55.

"After the game, his then agent, Bill McMurdo, a well connected Scot, approached me and said he thought he could get me fixed up with a club in Scotland if I was willing to go on trial.

"I wasn't convinced as I'd had other trials and interest from Chelsea, Everton, Aston Villa, Newcastle and Millwall. Bob Bishop even looked at me for Man United but nothing came of it. I decided to have one last go and Bill arranged for me to play in a friendly for Dunfermline against East Stirling.

"Their manager, Jim Leishman, said he liked me but sure enough he regretted to inform me he had to choose between signing one of two players and the other was Frank Stapleton.

"I packed my bags to go home when out of the blue, I was contacted by a Motherwell scout who had been at the Dunfermline game. He asked if I could stay on another week for Motherwell's manager Jim McLean to take a look.

"Again, I wasn't sold on the idea. I'd already had a week unpaid off my work as a steel erector for a firm at Mallusk and staying on would mean another week off. But after speaking to my dad, who worked with me, it was arranged for me to try my luck just one more time.

"I showed them what I could do and, again, I heard nothing for two weeks until Ronnie McFall, my manager at Portadown, came on the phone and said I'd better get over to Scotland as Motherwell wanted to sign me."

The fee was a £15,000 down payment with the usual add-ons for games played and international recognition. Portadown were to cash in handsomely over the next four years as O'Neill became a Motherwell mainstay and then graduated to Billy Bingham's Northern Ireland squad.

O'Neill starred in a very good Motherwell side capable of holding their own against a powerful Old Firm.

Well had former Rangers stars Davie Cooper and Iain Ferguson, future Celt and Scotland captain Tom Boyd, the late Phil O'Donnell, who tragically died during a match in 2007, Luc Nijholt and Craig Patterson.

This was the Old Firm era of Graeme Souness, Ally McCoist, Terry Butcher, Graham Roberts and Chris Woods at Ibrox. Celtic boasted Packie Bonner, Paul McStay, John Collins, Charlie Nicholas and Tommy Coyne.

O'Neill thrived in that cauldron.

"It was the fittest I have been in my whole life and I loved the crowds and the football," he enthuses.

"I was the first player to be banned in Scotland as a result of TV evidence," he then relates.

"I whacked a Celtic player off the ball in retaliation for an earlier incident when he caught me. The referee didn't see it but the cameras did and it was replayed on Scotsport over and over.

"I was banned for six matches and, as fate would have it, my first match back was at Parkhead. Boy did I get some stick and it was even worse when we scored and Davie Cooper and I celebrated in front of the Jungle.

"The difference, disciplinary-wise, for me in Scotland was learning the lines you dared not cross. In the Irish League I was sent off a lot for chirping and backchat. I was once red carded by a ref who only intended to book me. He asked my name and I said 'you should know it, you've booked me often enough' and off I went."

Colin was a rocket in the Irish League, right enough. He was full of cheek and devilment, sometimes incendiary, but never malicious.

Chatting to him again this week, and with the benefit of maturity and lessons learned, he offered a rationale for the excesses of his youth.

"I was plunged into the Irish League at 15, a boy against men, six stone wringing wet, a reporter once called me," he reasons. "I had to grow up quickly and learn to look after myself. Maybe I overdid it a bit but I was playing against some of the hardest men the league has ever seen, like Peter Rafferty at Linfield and Alex Robson of Glentoran. They made no allowances for my age and inexperience. I even once had an older team-mate at Larne take exception to me wearing earrings. He said if I didn't take them out, he would rip them out!

"I know rival teams set out to wind me up, too. Roy Coyle told me years later how they found out at Linfield that I would be playing in a Cup semi-final against them for Ballymena with a broken toe. It wasn't long before Lindsay McKeown stood on it; I lashed out and was back in the dressing room after 20 minutes."

It was a baptism of fire for the young O'Neill from the schools and Boys Brigade football where he first shone, bringing a procession of scouts and managers to his door on Lowwood Park, off Belfast's Shore Road where he grew up supporting Crusaders.

The Crues wanted him, of course, then manager Tommy Jackson and late chairman Jim Semple among the callers to his home.

"I followed the Crues but being a local boy I worried about becoming a readily available scapegoat for supporters' frustrations if things went wrong," he explains.

"I accepted an offer to train with Ards instead and the first night I turned up, Billy Nixon, the reserve team manager, took one look at me and said ball boys didn't train with the first team.

"I eventually convinced them I could play and made my debut as a sub at Coleraine, aged 15. I was made up when Billy Humphries, who I looked up to, told me to report to the first team dressing room for training after that. I wasn't a ball boy any more."

Ards was a good grounding for a kid learning the senior game with top players like Jim Campbell, Ray Mowatt, Ronnie Cromie and Roy Walker to aid his education

But it all ended abruptly in a dressing room flare up with a new manager, the late Lawrence Walker. "I squandered the chance of an equaliser at The Oval by trying to score instead of passing to another player in a better position," he recalled.

"Lawrence had a right go at me. He always wore stylish suits and I ended up chucking a whole cup of tea over one."

Shipped out to Larne straight away, he settled at Inver Park under his old Ards team-mate Johneen Black and resumed his learning curve alongside stalwarts like Paul Carland, Tom Sloan, Bobby McAuley and an emerging Bryan McLoughlin, the present Ballymena United assistant manager.

But another admirer was watching and waiting for a chance to sign a player he had long been tracking. Larne's loss was Ballymena's gain as that marvellous judge of young players on the up, Alan Campbell, lured him to the Showgrounds.

"That was my best time in the Irish League," he affirms. "I loved it there. What a team they had then... Graham Fox, George Beattie, Alan Harrison, John Sloan, Michael Guy and Rab McCreery. With those guys looking after me, I actually managed to play 38 games in a single season.

"I never wanted to leave but Alan Campbell departed and the board said they'd had an offer from Portadown that was too good to turn down.

"It turned out to be a good move as it led to me joining Motherwell and I enjoyed playing under Ronnie McFall, too, at the start of his transformation of the club."

It is indeed a testament to O'Neill that for all his scrapes and run-ins, he has not a bad word to say about anyone in his football past and among the players and supporters of his era, he remains a popular character. He is particularly fond of David Jeffrey who he used to wind up mercilessly and who now welcomes him to Ballymena with open arms.

He is regularly invited to Motherwell reunions where the fans recently accorded him the triple accolade of best goal in their history (his 1991 Scottish Cup semi-final winner against Celtic), best number four and No1 cult figure.

In return, he had the trophy tattooed upon his right thigh.

Still a bubbly personality with a glass half full outlook, he struggles, like many of the old pros of his day, with legacy injuries, in his case requiring knee and hip replacements. He played at a time before TV riches ensured even journeyman players now retire as millionaires and feels a game awash with money could do more for ex-players in his position.

His millions are his memories, among the most cherished his brief Northern Ireland flirtation, winning three caps between 1989 and 91.

"Billy Bingham actually introduced me to the squad as the former bad boy of the Irish League," he laughs.

"Everyone who played under Billy talks about his motivational skills but even those had a limit. I remember being sent on as a sub with us 3-0 down to the Republic in Dublin and him saying, 'you can win this game for us if you snuff out their midfield'.

"It was only Liam Brady and Ronnie Whelan!

"Another thing I remember about that game was George Best hitching a lift on the team bus. He was pleased to see how things had worked out for me, shook my hand and wished me well. A class act, was George, as a player and a man."

As we parted company, news of the passing of Ray Wilkins, aged 61, came through in a text message.

"I used to mark him at Rangers," O'Neill instantly recalls. "A superb player and an absolute gentleman. To be taken at that age... it certainly puts life's little trials and tribulations in perspective."

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