Finding the heart and soul of the team a lesson well learnt as Martin O’Neill remembers McAlinden’s gift
‘Jimmy McAlinden came to our door. He came personally to sign me for for Distillery’
Martin O’Neill when manager of Leicester City in 1999.
His office at the Aston Villa training ground almost four years ago: Martin O’Neill’s rapid, considered responses shift seamlessly from looking ahead to the looming League Cup final against Manchester United at Wembley, to looking back at his earliest days as he grew from schoolboy at St Malachy’s in Belfast to semi-professional footballer with Distillery and fresher law student at Queen’s University. Those were days we can call Martin O’Neill BC, the days before he met Brian Clough.
Appropriately, a lot always has been made of Brian Clough’s influence on O’Neill, and over the past few weeks the points have been made again.
There will probably be some more Clough in Dublin today, not least because Roy Keane experienced the legendary Nottingham Forest manager too. It is all understandable.
But it was not Clough who signed O’Neill for Forest in 1971. It was Matt Gillies. Gillies, a Scot, is an often forgotten manager. Yet he almost led Leicester City to a league and cup double in 1963 – Leicester City.
They lost the FA Cup final to Manchester United and having led the old First Division with five games left, Leicester finished fourth behind champions Everton. Leicester also lost the FA Cup final in 1961; but they won the League Cup in 1964.
Played in Europe
Under Gillies, Leicester played in Europe for the first time. It was something the club did not do again until 1997, when a certain Martin O’Neill was manager at Filbert Street.
In all, Gillies would stay as Leicester manager for 10 years from 1958 before moving to Forest. There he signed O’Neill and gave 17-year-old John Robertson his debut.
Having played for Leicester and Bolton Wanderers in the post-war era, Gillies presumably came across Jimmy McAlinden. McAlinden had won the FA Cup with Portsmouth in 1939 and was still at Fratton Park after the war.
McAlinden had arrived from Belfast Celtic, where he was a legend in a team full of them. He played for Ireland (northern version) first in 1937 and Ireland (southern version) in 1946.
McAlinden became the manager of Distillery in 1969. That was not long after the O’Neill family of Kilrea had relocated to Belfast and it was not long after, as O’Neill explained that day at Villa: “I’d scored a hat-trick at Celtic Park in Belfast for Northern Ireland versus southern Ireland at youth level.”
O’Neill was a developing talent, not short of admirers, yet he could never forget what happened next: “Jimmy McAlinden came to our door. He came personally to sign me for Distillery.”
Some 40 years on, you could see this gesture still mattered to O’Neill. He was to do the same only once as a manager, when he knocked on the door of Neil Lennon’s house in Crewe.