Martin O’Neill’s words were humbling and showed a touch of class
Ireland manager showed in Lille that he doesn’t forget a face
The other night in Lille, your correspondent registered a ‘first’ in post-match press conferences. Normally, these are bustling crowded affairs where it is not always easy to get in your question. After the Republic of Ireland’s win over Italy, it was just a little different.
Sitting in the front row to make sure I got my nose in, I greeted Martin O’Neill with a “complimenti” (well done) and was about to ask him a football question when he said: “For those of you who don’t know, Paddy and me come from the same village in Northern Ireland and I have followed Paddy’s career with a lot of interest over the years”
Martin and myself were both born in Kilrea, in March 1952. Yet, such was the apartheid-style of divided Northern Ireland that our paths never crossed until many years later when I would cover Billy Bingham’s Northern Irish side of the early ’80s, of which Martin was the accomplished captain.
Smart ladJohn Hume
In the meantime, I was packed off to St Columba’s, Rathfarnham, Dublin, very much a Protestant school, at the age of 13.
However, Martin’s family were well known to me. His two elder brothers, Gerry and Leo, were local heroes (at least to one half of the community) because they had won an Ulster Championship in 1958 playing for Derry (Definitely not Londonderry this time).
I knew this because Martin’s father, also Leo, used to cut my hair. Leo used to chat to me about sport and he would proudly recount the exploits of the two older brothers.
I finally met up with Martin when I covered Bingham’s team for Magill magazine. This was the side which famously beat host nation Spain 1-0 at the 1982 World Cup, something which O’Neill tried to replicate with the Republic of Ireland in Paris last Sunday.
As a green, enthusiastic but little prepared reporter, I looked around the Northern Irish squad for a friendly and informed face. Martin fitted the bill. He was the first in a long line of football men who talked, and taught me, about football.
In other times, I have listened to people like Marcello Lippi, Paolo Maldini, John Giles, Eamon Dunphy, Fabio Capello, Azeglio Vicini and Gary Lineker. Yet, Martin was the first football man who gave me an “inside track”.
He would recount the religious tensions in the team, and with certain unnamed Protestant players, over the fact that he was a Catholic captaining the Northern Irish team. He would also point out that the much-praised Northern Irish defence was good not only because Pat Jennings was the goalkeeper but also because his midfield, he himself, covered so effectively.
I met Martin again in Norwich where he played for the 1982-83 season, just after his decade of success with dual European Cup winners, Nottingham Forest. He and wife, Geraldine, also from Kilrea, could not have been more welcoming over a long lunch.
Prior to Euro 2016, I think the last time I met Martin O’Neill was during the France 98 World Cup. So I was keen to make some sort of contact at this tournament. Given that he had plenty to be getting on with, I thought I would wait until press conference time came around. Hence his gracious words in Lille.
When Martin spoke of my “interesting” career, he was obviously referring to my long and winding road down the bylanes of Italian football. I suspect, though, that he might also have been thinking of the strangeness of a black wee Presbyterian Prod ending up as the Vatican correspondent for The Irish Times.
It is unusual but, then, in a small rural, 50-50 Catholic-Protestant village like Kilrea, it was not all institutionalised apartheid. In a small farming community, neighbours need one another.
My father was a very able country vet whose clientele came from both communities. He was a man who would buy his bottle of whisky, first in a Catholic pub and then in a Protestant pub and so on, working his own cross-community good relations.
This is not to deny that Martin O’Neill is not, to some extent, driven, focused and successful in a very Northern Irish Catholic way, partly the product of a nasty, bigoted little Protestant state for a Protestant people.
In Lille the other night, though, he was first and foremost a very talented football coach. As a fellow Kilrea man, I was proud of him and humbled by his kind words.