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.
But his name has always been central to the conversation in the exhaustive and exhausting search for a new manager for the Republic of Ireland. Perhaps the long delay in choosing a successor to Giovanni Trapattoni has been down to O’Neill’s reluctance to step away from the weekly adrenaline rush of club management. But the more you think about O’Neill as the figurehead of the Irish football team, the more it makes sense.
Who is more representative of the sheer strangeness of the football identity of this island? O’Neill was an underage GAA star who somehow got his football education from one of the most brilliant and eccentric figures in English football. He was the Catholic who ended up as captain of the Northern Ireland football team. At the Áras, he recalled joking with Sammy McIlroy about the dubious joys of entering the unionist cauldron of Windsor Park, saying that he never minded being booed off the field: “It was when you were booed onto it that you had a concern.”
Triumph of escapism
Northern Ireland’s 1982 World Cup odyssey was a vivid and unforgettable triumph of escapism. O’Neill was at the centre of that and understood that it was possible for people from both nationalist and unionist communities to get along, given the chance. He understood, too, the instinctive sense that many Ulster Catholics had of the Republic as being “cold and distant” about the reality of life for Northern nationalists. Up there was a place to fear and to keep away from.
Most of all, he understands now how much has changed since he decided to quit Queens for the football life. The GAA is a different beast. Life in Northern Ireland is very different. One of the low points of cross-Border resentment occurred on the November night in 1993 when both Irelands played out a 1-1 draw in a seething Windsor Park after which Jack Charlton’s Republic team qualified for the World Cup. Even now, it is a fascinatingly grim piece of sports theatre. The decision of James McClean and Shane Duffy, Derry men like O’Neill, to declare for the Republic of Ireland speaks volumes about the ongoing complexities of identity and nationality in this country. It also reawakens the question of the inherent daftness of trying to field two competitive international football teams on one small island.
George Best’s idea of an all-Ireland football team has always been wishful thinking, as dreamy in its way as John Lennon’s Imagine. But if Martin O’Neill becomes the next Republic of Ireland manager, it will once again become a topic of conversation. O’Neill will, of course, be judged by results if he takes the Irish job. But he understands what it is to be Irish, whether north or south of the Border or Irish because of an emigrant grandfather.
Stepping out in front of the Republic of Ireland crowd as manager would represent a circular journey for Martin O’Neill and one that in its own way would be as remarkable as that taken by Mary Leneghan, his fellow student when they both sat down in the lecture halls at Queens without a clue of what lay ahead.