‘Soul matters’ - Martin O’Neill on Belfast, George Best and a classic encounter with Barcelona

Michael Walker joins the former player and manager on a trip back to the city where a brilliant career began

On Mersey Street in east Belfast, the car glides left and there they are, the gates of Glentoran’s Oval. They are open. Winter sunlight and memories from Martin O’Neill suddenly flood through. “This is it,” he says, delighted, “the car park!”

Some men of 70 return to their past as reluctant strangers; not O’Neill, not today. Out of the car, he scratches the smooth surface with his foot and says: “I got a trial for Glentoran and I came to the Oval. I played with the young third-team lads. I scored three goals in the car park. It had a bit more gravel then.

“This was on a Thursday; I got picked to play on the Saturday. They told me how to get there – two buses – but I didn’t have a clue. Belfast was really big if you’re coming from a village. Two buses. I didn’t make it. I missed the game.”

Wherever O’Neill was stranded, any idea of a Glentoran career ended there and then. “Real shame,” he says.

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This, he thinks, was late 1968 or 1969. The O’Neills as a family had moved to Belfast from Kilrea in Co Derry in the summer of 1968. They arrived on Madison Avenue, but not the one in Manhattan. No, this one was off the Cavehill Road in an area of north Belfast about to be consumed by the Troubles. Glentoran, across the city, could feel far away.

But as O’Neill walks on to the old terraces of the most atmospheric ground in the Irish League, he recalls other visits. There was a 2-2 Glentoran-Anderlecht game in the European Cup he attended (October 1968) and then, in February 1971, there was an amateur international here against Scotland in which O’Neill played.

He is carrying the cap he won, the single letter S signifying the opposition. “Just a great honour to be picked,” he says. “I kept my shirt, which I still have. I remember getting home and my younger brother almost being in awe of the shirt.

“It feels like it’s all happening for you.”

It was. He was 18. This was the birth of Martin O’Neill, professional footballer. Two months later, while at school, he scored two in the Irish Cup final for Distillery against Derry City.

Distillery’s prize for winning the Irish Cup was to enter the European Cup Winners’ Cup. They drew Barcelona. So in September, now 19 and just starting at Queen’s University, O’Neill lined up against Barcelona, who had recently appointed a new manager – Rinus Michels. The man nominated by France Football as the greatest coach of the 20th century saw his side take a 2-0 lead. Then, as the Belfast Telegraph reported, this happened:

“Somehow Martin O’Neill dragged the ball forward and blasted it into the roof of the net in one swift, stunning movement, a real masterpiece.”

The goalkeeper beaten by O’Neill was Miguel Reina, father of Pepe – of Liverpool. Barcelona got a third and would win the second leg 4-0 at Camp Nou. O’Neill continued to study Law and scouts continued to observe.

Two weeks after the second leg, he was called up by Northern Ireland for a first full cap – against USSR. Player-manager Terry Neill, who fulfilled the same role at Hull City, then offered Distillery £10,000 for their teenage student. Distillery paused, they knew Nottingham Forest were also keen. One week on, Forest offered £15,000 and on Tuesday, October 19th, O’Neill was summonsed to Grosvenor Park, Distillery’s home, to sign as a professional. The next morning he joined Forest. Then, literally, he flew. He had never been in England, not properly. In November he was called off the bench against West Brom at the City Ground in the old First Division – today’s Premier League – with the score 1-1. Ten minutes later, he made it 2-1.

From an amateur cap at the end of February, via the Irish Cup, Barcelona, an international debut, to a goal for Forest in England’s top flight, O’Neill is correct, it was all happening. He could write a book about 1971.

Instead O’Neill has written an autobiography in which, amazingly, the first leg against Barcelona merits 12 words. Given this was the beginning of 50 years in professional football, O’Neill had much to cover in a tome he wrote himself, longhand; even so, 12 words? Was this not a life- and career-changing occasion?

“Do you know what? It really was. It wasn’t that long after, when Northern Ireland were playing Russia and a couple of lads were injured, instead of calling up others, Terry Neill decides to bring a student into the squad. I’m there with all these professionals, a gullible amateur. In my first training session wee Eric McMordie must have nutmegged me three times and shouted ‘megs’ – I realised that a nutmeg was more important than scoring a goal.”

As time flashed by, in December O’Neill scored at Old Trafford with George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton on the pitch. Soon Best would be an Irish colleague, to O’Neill’s great pleasure: “It was difficult not to love George Best. Such a player. He was the superstar of Europe. If he turned up three minutes before kick-off and had done no training, it didn’t matter. We all loved him.”

Life had changed. As Belfast burned, O’Neill’s parents and family joined him in Nottingham. His parents would never again live in Ireland.

At international level, O’Neill’s 1971 debut was his last game in Belfast until 1975. Other countries declined to travel to the bombed-out city until Yugoslavia did so. Moving footage shows the Irish players forming a guard of honour welcome for the Yugoslavs.

“We didn’t think the Troubles had receded or anything, but the fact Yugoslavia were prepared to come to Belfast, it felt like a glimmer of hope,” O’Neill says. “They were shown affection for doing it ... you think of their later history.”

O’Neill’s career was blossoming in Nottingham but, as he says after leaving the Oval and arriving on Distillery Street in search of any remnant of bulldozed Grosvenor Park,: “Belfast, it was never leaving you.”

O’Neill uses the word “soul” about the Distillery side managed by Jimmy McAlinden. Distillery were a mix of Catholics and Protestants, as were Northern Ireland, whom O’Neill captained at the 1982 World Cup. The society both teams came from, however, did not mix.

“Soul matters, absolutely,” he says, “it’s the essence of a team. Distillery had soul, epitomised by Jimmy McAlinden – clever, technical, good motivator. Listen, I’m not saying for one minute that soul or camaraderie wins you titles, but it is really important. I felt it at Distillery and when I went to Nottingham Forest, a team in disarray, it felt as if it wasn’t there. I think part of that was because just four years earlier Forest were runners-up in the league and FA Cup semi-finalists. So close to a Double. Suddenly there was a real decline – the main stand burning down didn’t help. By the time I arrived, I think it was losing its soul.

“With Northern Ireland it was there too – I’m not saying Billy Bingham was laugh-a-minute, but there were moments in Spain when he was relaxed and he’d talk about the game in general ... he had a strict side to him, which was fine; it had been looser under Danny.”

Danny was Danny Blanchflower, once of Glentoran, the poet of White Hart Lane and Irish football. Blanchflower took over in 1976 and was as idiosyncratic as any manager ever.

“Danny always said Northern Ireland had to equalise first. You know?

“But as Pat Jennings says, all of us loved playing for Danny, genuinely loved it, even though we weren’t going to win many games. It was Danny, his career, what he meant. It was respect. We knew we were too gung-ho, but it was Danny Blanchflower, so we’ll get on with it.”

The other Irish team O’Neill played for was Shamrock Rovers. It was the 1973 one-off peace initiative organised by Derek Dougan – against Brazil.

“I got to play alongside Johnny Giles,” he says, “and against Jairzinho, Rivelino, Clodoaldo – I got his shirt, still have it.

“Johnny Giles was obviously a really great footballer and in 1971-72, my first season in England, Leeds United were outstanding. Even when I’d scored a couple of goals for Forest, played a few games, that standard seemed so far away. Giles, Billy Bremner, Peter Lorimer, Norman Hunter – you were in awe of them. Forest went there towards the end of that season and got smashed 6-1; it could have been 16-1. Leeds ‘71-72, I’m never sure they get the credit they deserve.

“To be invited to play in that Shamrock Rovers team was an honour. It was nice a couple of northern boys were playing with the southern boys, but, you know what, I’m not sure that was my priority – if you’re playing against Brazil, you’re not too worried about political implications. You just want to play.”

And as he proved in the Oval car park, Martin O’Neill could play.

On Days Like These’ is published by Macmillan. Out now.