Martin O’Neill has returned to football with renewed vigour and Sunderland are the beneficiaries. He may be nearing 60 but, he tells Andrew Smith, he feels 35 and is still in love with the game
IT IS a bravura Martin O’Neill performance. So much does the Sunderland manager have the assembled throng eating out of his hands as he conducts press duties at the training ground on Friday, it is as if he has grown shovels at the end of his arms.
The peppery wit, liberally sprinkled, is seasoned with a start to his management stint in the North-East that, even by his own satisfying standards, has proved a sumptuous feast. Six wins have been posted across a nine-game span. The same team took the previous nine months and 30 games to rustle up that number of victories under the deposed Steve Bruce.
O’Neill’s alchemist’s touch appears to have been invigorated by his 15-month hiatus from the game, a period that followed his surprise resignation from Aston Villa. As, it seems, has his mischievousness with questioners. In this instance, those previewing the home FA Cup tie today that will pit him against Middlesbrough and another former Celtic manager in Tony Mowbray. It is put to him that, had circumstances been different, he could have been in the Boro dug-out. “That was about half a century ago,” he says of the 2006 job offer from the Riverside club.
Then there is the subject of the unsettled Craig Gardner who has been frustrated by his lack of game time. Could he be handed a rare start? “My mind is half open on that – and half closed,” he says.
Another poser centres on whether it would be a failure if he didn’t bring in new faces in this window. “What, even faces that have nothing to do with the football team?” he jokes, before holding his stomach. “I feel my guts wrenching when you mention the word failure.”
Another subject that inevitably pops up is the fact this afternoon’s tie will bring O’Neill up against Scott McDonald for the first time since the Australian’s goals for Motherwell did for his Celtic side in the closing minutes of the 2005 title race; that Fir Park encounter bringing a sorry end to his fifth and final SPL campaign. It did so because a defeat at home to Mowbray’s Hibernian a fortnight before brought Rangers back in to contention. “Nice painful memories, thank you very much, that’s very kind of you,” he says. “Did you come down here to afflict me. I really, really appreciate it.”
O’Neill affects the same mock indignation after ruminating on the importance of treating the FA Cup with the utmost respect. Many English Premier League clubs no longer field their strongest teams. He will, though. The boyhood Sunderland supporter is acutely aware of how much a trophy would matter to a “proper” club deprived of success since their fabled 1973 FA Cup win. When it is taken as a given by one interrogator that he would respect such traditions, he cautions that he did put out a second-string Villa side away to CSKA Moscow in the UEFA Cup three years ago. He is gently reminded he made ten changes before losing a Scottish Cup tie at Inverness in 2003. “Oh, so you’ve come here to talk about my two biggest mistakes,” he says.
In five weeks’ time, O’Neill will turn 60. Age, he says, has changed the management role, and his attitude to it, only in as much as he can get frightened looking at the birth dates of his players. When he boasts to his squad about his own playing successes, and specifically the 1980 European Cup win, “they’ve never heard of it”. He also struggles to convince them that the “old man” miscontrolling a ball at training could play.
Later, when we are alone, I put it to him that the renewal he seems to have gained from his time out even seems to extend to enjoying media duties. Cue more classic O’Neill as he lowers his head and hooks his eyes over the top of his glasses. The advancing years, he says, are not about to send him into retreat.
“I feel really young, honestly,” he says. “I may not look it, but I feel about 35. I have the same sort of energy and enthusiasm and they are of paramount importance. You cannot lose the enthusiasm for it. That has to be at your core. You can’t graft it on. You feel it. It has been a great, great start, but who knows what happens. The club itself is a worthwhile club. Whether we have to wait 40, 50 years to get silverware again, who knows. But like Celtic it is a genuine privilege to be managing the football club.”
Ah, Celtic, an obvious reference point. But the jumble of past and present will be felt this week with Mowbray across the track from him today, Paul Lambert opposing him on Wednesday and Neil Lennon next Saturday attempting to lead Celtic to a 13th straight league win that would mark the club’s longest winning run since O’Neill’s men set a top-flight record of 25 straight victories.
“Lenny has fought back really strongly; it has been a great riposte to what happened earlier in the season,” he says. “I am obviously delighted. I always felt he would find his own way to be able to do it. I always said that if he became half the manager he was as a player, that would be pretty good for starters. It has been tough for him, being hit, assaulted [as well as having had the bomb and bullets sent to him] so it is great credit to him what he is doing in one seriously difficult job, considering it has come to him so young.”
As is O’Neill’s way, his collar is turned up and tracksuit bottoms tucked firmly into socks as he goes about his business. On Wednesday then, when Norwich visit the Stadium of Light, it could be like the famous Harpo Marx mirror scene from Duck Soup as he greets Lambert, his former Celtic captain, before kick-off. The garb, the glasses and the gait of both men will be identical. The Scotland internationalist seems to style himself on O’Neill and has earned himself the moniker of mini-Martin.
“He’s got his own way,” petitions O’Neill. “It is like anything else. I was lucky enough to learn under Brian Clough, a great manager. And Paul’s had experience in Germany under [Ottmar] Hitzfeld and... somewhere along the line if he’s picked up something from myself, that’s fine. Lenny, Paul and all the others who have played under me and are now managing with credit, they had it in them, they had the personalities. You can talk about reflected glory, but I am just genuinely pleased for them.”
Glory of the tangible variety is still the real driver for O’Neill. He is a man who picks up the pieces at clubs and tends to glue them back together with shards of silverware. In his last posting, at Villa, he didn’t succeed as he had with his three previous long-term club associations. There were seven trophies at Celtic, two League Cups and promotion with Leicester City, remarkably, and promotions and a cup with Wycombe Wanderers.
And, as with the title loss to Rangers in 2005, it is his near miss in his four years at Villa Park that is etched in his memory. “It is the tangibles you look for; you can talk about improvement till you are blue in the face but winning trophies signifies something. They are always defining moments. That last year at Villa we finished sixth again, with 64 points to better our total year-on-year. We were desperate to win the League Cup final against Manchester United in 2010, and at the same time destined not win it. If the referee had done his job properly we would have had a penalty and he would have had to send [Nemanja] Vidic off. It would have been 87 minutes against ten men and with James Milner, Stewart Dowling and Ashley Young, who have gone on to big stuff, we had plenty energy in our team to go and win as we had at Old Trafford that year.”
For all that he achieved a treble in his first season in Scotland and took the Celtic to the UEFA Cup final in 2003 – “losing it wasn’t as sore as that last league” – O’Neill’s ability to transform a club is best summed up by the fact that, in his first four years, he led Celtic to as many titles as they had claimed in the previous 18 years. “Really? I didn’t appreciate that,” he says. “When I look back now that 6-2 win over Rangers [a month into his first season in 2000] was a bigger victory than I was aware of at the time. I mean, I knew it was big but it lifted the whole club. You can get carried away with one victory but it gave us serious belief that, even getting beaten at Ibrox next time, didn’t upset. The 6-2 might have set us up for the next two years.”
Meanwhile, it will be more than Celtic supporters who continue to revere him and pay close attention to his progress at Sunderland. It has been reported that Craig Gordon need play only six more games to trigger a £1 million payment to Hearts that could ease their hellish wage pressures. O’Neill is at pains to stress this will not affect his thinking on whether to play the Scotland internationalist, who has lost his place after a grim run with injuries and is out of contract at the end of the season. Indeed, it is the Irishman’s understanding that Hearts will bank money from Sunderland for the player who moved for £9m whether or not he is recalled.
“Thankfully, he is now almost at full fitness,” he says. “Goalkeeper is the one position we are really well covered for but Craig is a very fine goalkeeper and each week he is getting fitter and fitter and that’s the most important issue for him. He will get games. I want to correct any impression that any appearance clause would concern me. It is not an issue for me or the club. And the truth is that I think payments are pro rata and that, even if Craig leaves this football club, we would have to pay Hearts.”
O’Neill tends to hang around any club that he feels he can develop. He feels grateful for the opportunity to do that at yet another “institution”, that engenders the very passion that oozes from him.
“It is a privilege to be working. And to be well paid doing a job I love is something I can’t forget. I did it as a player when we weren’t well paid; it didn’t matter. I get great enjoyment out of the game yet. It has change enormously from the 1970s. Then players had no power, now they have all the power. You might have to consciously alter your approach to deal with that but in the main you adapt sub-consciously.”
The traits that make O’Neill such an uplifting presence on the trackside will never lose their power.