20 years ago today: Appointing Martin O’Neill one of Celtic’s best-ever decisions

Irishman revived dishevelled side and won the treble at his first attempt

Martin O’Neill celebrates Celtic’s sixth goal in the 6-2 victory over Rangers in August 2000. Picture: SNS.
Martin O’Neill celebrates Celtic’s sixth goal in the 6-2 victory over Rangers in August 2000. Picture: SNS.

The right man at the right time. Twenty years ago today, Celtic made one of the shrewdest 
decisions in their modern 
history with the appointment of Martin O’Neill as manager.

The then 48-year-old was at the peak of his managerial powers, leaving Leicester City after an outstanding tenure which included four top-ten finishes in the Premier League and two League Cup triumphs.

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He arrived in Glasgow when Rangers had lifted five of the previous six major domestic trophies under Dick Advocaat, finishing a massive 21 points clear of a dishevelled Celtic side in the league at the end of the 1999-2000 season.

The transformation in the east end of the city under O’Neill was immediate and nothing short of remarkable. The touch paper was lit with a 6-2 win over Rangers in his first Old Firm match and the domestic treble was claimed in that maiden campaign.

In his five years at the club, O’Neill guided Celtic to seven major honours and reclaimed respectability on the European stage, including the run to the Uefa Cup final in 2003.

Current assistant manager John Kennedy was only 16 when O’Neill arrived at the club, having made his first-team debut a couple of months earlier under caretaker boss Kenny Dalglish who had picked up the reins following the departure of John Barnes.

“People appreciate what Martin did for the club,” reflects Kennedy, pictured far right. “He came in on the back of a difficult period for Celtic.

“His personality was also just right for Celtic. He developed a team and a squad that got Celtic back on top and he did it in the space of one season against a very good Rangers team that had plenty of resources.

“The team scored a lot of goals, was exciting to watch and won a lot of trophies. Martin was a terrific manager for Celtic.”

Kennedy played in O’Neill’s first match as Celtic manager, a friendly against Bray Wanderers in Dublin, and relished learning from the former Northern Ireland captain’s methods.

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“When Martin came in I was involved in his first pre-season,” adds Kennedy. “I was just a young player on the fringes and he started to build his team. He brought in a lot of big-money signings, big players with big personalities. He obviously had great success in his time.

“But he also showed a lot of faith in myself, Shaun Maloney, Liam Miller, Colin Healy. He loved big players but he still had a group under that which he spent time with and tried to develop.

“We trained with the senior players most of the time and then over a period we got to play alongside them. It wasn’t just about the big guys with Martin.

“His man-management, the way he dealt with big personalities, was pretty much the same as how he would deal with you. Martin had a great aura, a great presence in the dressing room. He demanded respect, which he got.

“Personally, I had a really good relationship with him. He wouldn’t hesitate to put you in if he felt you were ready. There would be no questions asked, he wouldn’t talk too much about it, you were in and that was it.

“Martin would just say ‘you’re playing, you’re good to go.’ His trust in you meant a great deal and gave you that belief.

“For a young player, it can be quite challenging to be suddenly getting a chance in beside so many big players. Daunting even.

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“But I thought it was great and I didn’t have a problem with Martin not dressing things up too much, just getting to the point and leaving you to prepare for it.

“Nowadays, as a coach you’ll probably spend more time with young players, speaking to them and framing their mind about what’s ahead.

“Back in the day, you just had to go in and deliver. It was straightforward as that and we had some wonderful players like Johan Mjallby, Joos Valgaeren, Neil Lennon, Chris Sutton and Henrik 
Larsson.

“It was a huge challenge trying to break into that Celtic team. Martin trusted you enough, though, and all of the young players like me appreciated him backing you.

“It was a great learning curve for me playing with guys like Neil, Chris, Henrik and Johan and all these guys.

“It was also very interesting for me to see how Martin handled a dressing room with such big profile players and different personalities. He did it brilliantly and his record of success with Celtic speaks for itself.

“Martin would give you the information you required and just leave you to get on with it.

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“He wouldn’t over hype a situation or a game. He told you he had faith in you to deal with whatever came your way.

“I was lucky to have so many players around me with top experience. They helped me get through the games I had back then before my knee injury.

“I learned so much about preparing for big games and coping with the pressure. They would guide me during the action.”

Kennedy’s own progress under O’Neill was halted by the serious knee injury he suffered while playing for Scotland against Romania in March 2004, sidelining him for almost three years and later forcing him to hang up his boots at the age of only 26.

“Kenny Dalglish had already given me my first-team debut but I was realistic about my chances of being a regular,” he says. “I was still learning and Martin had to make an impact in the transfer market.

“I’ve got a great respect for him in terms of the time he gave me on the pitch, the guidance he provided.

“He also had a big impact on me with regards to the tough spell when I was out injured. He was great with me, fantastic with my family.

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“He showed them great respect and gave them his time. I’ll always be grateful to Martin.”

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