Martin O’Neill’s whole life has been leading up to answering Ireland’s call
Who is more representative of the sheer strangeness of the football identity of this island?
Stepping out in front of the Republic of Ireland crowd as manager would represent a circular journey for Martin O’Neill Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire.
How could Martin O’Neill not answer the Republic of Ireland’s call? In a roundabout way, the whole of his football life has been leading up to it.
There always seems to have been multiple Martin O’Neills whenever you see him on television. There is the sometime television pundit, humorous and passionate and a natural talker. There is the intense, introspective managerial O’Neill. And then there is the absolute looper from countless MOTD highlights programmes in customary sweatshirt and pants tucked into socks, lost in ecstasy on the sideline whenever Norwich or Leicester or Aston Villa scored. But through it all, O’Neill has remained unmistakably Irish and Derry-Irish at that.
About four years ago, O’Neill was invited to the Áras by then president Mary McAleese to give a talk in a series of lectures entitled Ireland and Tomorrow. O’Neill opened by wondering how a youngster raised in a Derry city council house whose living room featured a depiction of Christ and a photograph of Pádraig Pearse could, some five decades later, find himself sitting in his living room while a group of profoundly English men interviewed him as a candidate for the job of national team manager.
What would it say about “the situation”, as the Ulster political brethren are wont to call for the 400 odd years of strife, if a 1950s Catholic cub ended up in charge of England’s finest?
As O’Neill pointed out in the Áras, he has spent most of his adult life living out of Ireland but his sporting life has been defined by his nationality. Growing up in the late 1950s, he was enthralled by the GAA and spoke vividly about a six-hour journey to Dublin when, as a six-year-old, he watched the Derry team – his older brother was on the team – lose to Dublin. He recalled the tension and acute disappointment he felt when he was refused permission to play a GAA match in Casement Park because he was also kicking soccer with Distillery. He looked destined for life in the library and dusty court houses of Northern Ireland when he started studying in Queens, leaving when Nottingham Forest offered him a trial.
“I’m very wary about people more intelligent than I am,” Brian Clough said, shooting a keen look at O’Neill when the pair met years after their Forest days. And there has always been something of the academic-led-astray about O’Neill. Bespectacled and curly haired on the sideline, he had the look of a distracted mathematics professor indulging his Saturday morning passion – except that O’Neill developed his reputation working minor miracles in English football towns on the fringes of the bright lights.
The gripe about O’Neill’s management career is that he is best suited to keeping the perennial mid-table clubs at their level firing at full throttle. But that summation discounts the uncanny rise of Wycombe Wanderers, his first club, from the Conference to the cusp of the Division Two play-offs in five years. It makes light of the reverence in which he was held at Leicester and the successes at Celtic – including the march to the 2003 Uefa Cup final.
At that point, the chances of O’Neill taking charge at one of the dynastic English clubs seemed strong. It never quite happened and his abrupt resignation from Aston Villa and his indignation at being sacked last March by Sunderland, the club he had supported as a boy, has left a slightly hollow feeling. It seems unlikely that O’Neill will manage Manchester United or Liverpool at this point. Perhaps the one piece of misfortune in a terrifically successful football life was that he never got that break.