‘I’m a staunch Gaelic man’: Martin O’Neill recalls the highs and lows of his GAA life
Former Ireland manager says Hogan Cup final loss still haunts his dreams
Martin O’Neill grew up playing Gaelic football before moving to Nottingham Forest. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
Martin O’Neill, the former Republic of Ireland manager and European Cup winner, has said that the loss of a Hogan Cup final still haunts his dreams. From a well-known Derry football family he was a major under-age talent, winning a MacRory Cup medal as well an Ulster minor title.
Having moved to Belfast he attended St Malachy’s College, he lost the All-Ireland schools final to Cork’s Coláiste Chríost Rí by a last-minute goal for which he still blames himself.
“There’s not a person living that doesn’t regret something,” he said. “For instance the Hogan Cup was definitely a big disappointment. Incredibly less than three years ago - and I’m a fair age now - I actually had a dream about the Hogan Cup so it must be somewhere at the back of my mind.”
He was speaking at a webinar organised by the Queen’s GAA club in Belfast on Thursday evening to mark the 50th anniversary of the deletion of the Ban at the 1971 annual congress, which was held in the university.
‘How the Ban was broken: The road to abolition at Queen’s in 1971,’ was delivered by the historian and author Dónal McAnallen and piqued O’Neill’s interest in the story of Eddie Devlin, the Tyrone footballer who fell foul of the controversial restriction.
Devlin was in Dublin on a Railway Cup weekend and was spotted on his bike near Lansdowne Road by a member of a Vigilance Committee (the notorious spying operations that scrutinised attendances at rugby and soccer matches for anyone in breach of Rule 27, forbidding members from supporting foreign games). He was reported, much to his chagrin, as a number of his team-mates were actually in the ground unnoticed.
“I felt sorry for Eddie Devlin going past Lansdowne Road! The Ban had its inconsistencies,” said O’Neill.
He had his own brushes with the rule as a young player on a breakneck career track that took him from being a Queens law student to a professional contract with Nottingham Forest by the time the first academic term was over.
Talking to John Devenney, the Down county chair and a former chair of the Queens GAA club, the former Northern Ireland World Cup captain outlined how he had juggled the two sports without ever questioning the primacy of football.
“Soccer had its roots in England and eventually the professional game about 150 years ago. There were World Cups taking place and it became a universal game. The first World Cup was in Uruguay so it was a fair distance away. Growing up, I felt soccer had a universal appeal and didn’t just belong to England or the British colonies.
“It certainly didn’t seem to concern us as a family. Gerry and Leo [his brothers, who helped to win a first Sigerson Cup for Queens] were big GAA people and my father very strongly into the GAA in Kilrea.
“Sundays were taken up either watching Derry trying to overcome Down at various stages. I went with my mother to the All-Ireland final in 1958. My brother [Leo] played in the semi-final against Kerry although only a kid of 18. We played Dublin in the final. He was a sub and came on. I think - and I may be biased - that he was unlucky to be left out at the time but he was very young. We were absolutely ensconced in Gaelic football.
“There might have been the 1958 World Cup which I saw two doors down. We didn’t have a television at the time so watched down the road where our neighbour, who was involved in televisions, allowed us to watch this World Cup final, which featured Pelé. That didn’t seem to matter because we were more concerned about how Derry and Kilrea were doing.
“So the ban was never a problem for me growing up.
“Kilrea had the same type of shirt as Derry. When my brothers came home from games, that shirt just epitomised Derry. I couldn’t wait to grow up to play for Derry. That trip to Dublin was etched on my memory for a long time. Still is.”
GAA connections ran through his life. In St Malachy’s he encountered Phil Stuart, who had played for Derry in that 1958 All-Ireland.
“Phil Stuart was our trainer. He knew my brothers and had been at Queens with Leo and Gerry. Almost by fluke we came across each other. We won the Rannafast Cup and then the MacRory Cup and lost the Hogan final - which I blame myself for - to Coláiste Chríost Rí from Cork, by a point when we really should have won.
“I should have held onto the ball in the last 30 seconds instead of trying to pass to my younger brother and then Coláiste Chríost Rí mightn’t have intercepted and scored.”
Now settled as a footballer of considerable promise, O’Neill was desperate to win the MacRory Cup (Ulster schools) again and attempt All-Ireland redemption. It’s at this point that his life gets complicated.
He had a rising profile in soccer playing with the Rosario club from Ormeau and getting selected by the Down and Connor League. Impressing the scouts in a match against a Dublin district side, he was asked to sign for Irish League club Distillery - while still a schoolboy.
There were apparently no problems.
“The desire to go back and win again was strong. But by now I was playing for Distillery. I didn’t think it was a problem. The manager had a long talk with Phil and said, listen if these games coincide on a day he’s your player.”
What happened next passed into the legend of the Ban and its unfailingly self-defeating potential. The MacRory semi-final was against fellow Belfast school, St Mary’s. It should have been a glorious day for football in the city but Antrim county board took exception to O’Neill’s soccer profile and refused to allow the ground to be used - despite the Ban’s provisions not applying to students at secondary or third level.
Instead the schools and their supporters had to travel to Omagh where the local Christian Brothers obligingly made their ground available.
“We were drawn against St Mary’s CBS,” he said, “a very good team. The game obviously should have taken place at Casement Park, a big, big pitch. I’m not saying that we would have won the game but we would have had a better chance because the one thing we could do was cover the ground pretty quickly.
“Antrim GAA stepped in and said it couldn’t be played there, which is where we all wanted to take place. It was very disheartening.”
To this day he can’t explain how it happened and echoes Phil Stuart’s belief that they should have taken the matter farther - all the way to Croke Park if necessary.
“Playing for Down and Connor didn’t seem to cause concern. The furore shouldn’t have taken place. In hindsight we should have called their bluff.”
After a career that spanned so much success - from the start, while a schoolboy he scored twice in the IFA Cup final and went on to score against Barcelona in the now defunct European Cup Winners’ Cup and then embark on a professional career, which took in two European Cup medals and a World Cup - has he not been able to put this in context?
“Not at all. That defeat in Omagh - we had a big travelling contingent. That hasn’t been expunged at all. It still hurts badly. Listen this is not a down on the GAA. It’s a great organisation. I took my two daughters to the 2003 All-Ireland between Armagh and Tyrone and they were blown away by the whole pageantry and everything about it.
“It’s a different game to the one I played. Some great things about it - and some not so great things. My annoyance is with the Antrim GAA more than anything else.”
There was already form there. As a schoolboy he also played in Division 5 of the Antrim league on a team of friends from St Malachy’s, who “generally had lumps kicked out of us but we loved the game”.
There was blue tape that hadn’t been attended to and his transfer from Kilrea hadn’t been properly authorised. This had nothing to do with the Ban but was nonetheless an inviting target for the opposition.
“I was playing for the Derry minors. I’m in the dressingroom about to play Antrim in a championship. We’re getting changed when an Antrim official comes in and says, ‘if O’Neill plays, we’re going to protest’.”
So he was stood down as a teenager about to take the pitch. Derry won and the matter was resolved but his recalled “annoyance” is probably an understatement.
He looks back and can understand what originally drove the prohibition.
“I think the GAA felt at the time that if you lifted the Ban that you would also lift your nationalism. I wouldn’t have thought that and certainly wouldn’t have thought it at 15. I’m delighted that I was born in Ulster rather than anywhere else in Ireland and I’ve certainly not lost my identity.
“Certainly not every moment in the 1970s for an Irishman living in England - whether a footballer or not - was a fantastic moment but I wouldn’t swap it for anything.”
He tried to re-float his law studies at the University of Nottingham but as soon as there was an opportunity, Brian Clough arrived as manager and “put extra demands on players”.
Asked about any future involvement as a manager, he says that at 69 he has “been hiding behind the pandemic a bit. I haven’t gone into a cave yet although who knows?”
Other regrets include the UEFA Cup final in 2003 and leaving Queens before getting a chance to play Sigerson.
“At Celtic we should have beaten Porto in the UEFA Cup final of 2003, managed by (José) Mourinho. I thought their tactics on the day were not great but we should have won the game. We lost 3-2 in extra time and had a man sent off. Porto go on with virtually the same side to win the Champions League the next year.
“Of course you have regrets. My brothers played for Derry and paved the way and I would have loved to have emulated them. They won the Sigerson Cup and in this year, 1971, Queens won it again with a couple of my school pals Séamus Mullen and Liam Murphy in the side. Bit of envy there!”
Reflecting on it all, he is asked had it left a sour taste.
“I might have been sour but my disappointment was that we didn’t get playing at Casement Park. And to heck with those St Mary’s boys who went on to win the Hogan and spawn my real jealousy!
“The GAA is a fantastic organisation. I think at the time it had to move or give at some stage because it (the Ban) had become counterproductive. I think the reasons why it was introduced a century ago were pretty obvious but life moves on. I’m a staunch Gaelic man and will remain so for the rest of my time.”