Death of Dr Tony O'Neill


Dr Tony O'Neill, who died in Dublin yesterday after a short illness, at the age of 53, was almost certainly, the outstanding Irish sports administrator of his generation.

Known simply across the whole spectrum of Irish sport as The Doc, he was the constant in a changed and changing world in which the inroads of professionalism are often seen to induce new priorities.

At the time of his death, he was Director of Sport at UCD, a post in which his unrivalled ability as an organiser blended with his Catholic taste in sport, to make him a pivotal personality in the evolution of physical education at Belfield.

In that capacity, he was primarily responsible for the introduction of the scholarship scheme which revitalised sport in the university and brought some of the best young talent in soccer, gaelic games, rugby and athletics on to the campus.

He practised sports medicine in Dublin in his younger days but even at that stage, was deeply committed to the development of soccer at UCD, with the ultimate aspiration of taking the club into senior competition.

In that, as in much else in life, he was successful and in 1984, he savoured the supreme satisfaction of watching the club beat Shamrock Rovers in a replayed final, to win the FAI Cup for the first time.

Some three years later, he left medicine to accept an even bigger challenge in modernising the FAI. With the advent of Opel (Ireland) as a mainline sponsor and the appointment of Jack Charlton to take charge of the national team, it was felt that the management of the association, needed to be streamlined.

Peadar O'Driscoll was coming close to the end of his long term as general secretary and after serving for a short time as assistant, O'Neill was the unanimous choice to replace him. His achievements would meet the high expectations and more, as the infrastructure was put in place to match Ireland's spectacular progress in the 1988 European Championships and again in the World Cup in Italy two years later.

Then, almost as suddenly as he had arrived, he was gone from Merrion Square to accept a new post at Belfield and the chance of leaving his imprint on a broader canvas. Later, he would serve for two years as president of the National League but more and more, Europe now claimed his time.

Perceived by some influential personalities in UEFA as a man who might in the fullness of time, head up the organisation, he was a member of the association's committee on media affairs as well as serving on the organising committees for the European Championships in England in 1996 and again for Euro 2000. Moreover, he built a reputation as one of UEFA's most astute match observers, representing them at potential flashpoints across Europe.

Irish football supporters had good reason to be grateful for his knowledge of the European system and the respect he commanded among the higher echelon of officials in Geneva, when he successfully presented the case in June, to have the controversial European championship game against Yugoslavia, rearranged for Lansdowne Road.

More recently he was appointed by the Minister for Sport, Dr Jim McDaid as a member of the Independent Drugs Tribunal, another high profile post for an intensely private man. And in a sense, that was the contradiction in the man who, in spite of his involvement in sport at the highest levels, was always more comfortable with the volunteers who made the whole process work.

Images of Tony O'Neill and the idealist who never lost sight of his roots are many. Like in Ghent in January of last year when etiquette demanded that he be present at the noon draw for the preliminaries of Euro 2000. Undeterred, he put the necessary arrangements in place to ensure that he was at Belfield in the afternoon, in time to watch the second half of a UCD game.

Or again, the spectacle of a man who a day earlier might have been involved in negotiations at the highest level of the game, trudging towards Belfield from his home in Clonskeagh, with a net full of footballs, slung over his shoulder, told of a romance that never went cold.

That was the unique quality of Tony O'Neill who treated with sport's decision makers at the highest level and still, never once lost the common touch which had got him involved in the first instance.

His was an amalgam of integrity, industry, compassion and commitment which will not be easily replaced. In that, his untimely death is an incalculable loss.

The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern led the tributes when he said that Tony O'Neill was the inspiration for thousands of people getting involved in sport. "He was a great ambassador for sport and to that extent, his passing will be mourned not just in football but in many other disciplines as well."

The Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation, Dr Jim McDaid, said yesterday that O'Neill had made a major contribution to the progress of soccer in Ireland. "His death at such a young age is a tremendous loss to the FAI, to UCD and to sport in general."

Pat Quigley, the FAI president, described him as a man of vision who had the respect of football people everywhere. "The loss to Irish football is huge - to UCD its immeasurable."

There was also a tribute from the FAI's chief executive, Bernard O'Byrne who said that the game in this country had been enriched by his dedication and expertise.

Dr O'Neill, who was unmarried, is survived by his mother, Jo, his sister Marjorie (Fitzpatrick) and his brother Seamus. The funeral is at the Church of the Miraculous Medal, Bird Avenue, at 5.30 this evening and burial at Shanganagh after 11.00 a.m. mass tomorrow.