CONFESSIONALS which describe an outsider’s view of an environment initially regarded as hostile usually make for enthralling subject matter, which is why the story of Hugh O’Neill deserves to be wider known.
The book O’Neill should already have written might have included the sub-title: How a Celtic-Supporting American Catholic Ended Up At Glasgow Rangers. Knowledge of football in Glasgow would have to be assumed, although, ironically, ignorance is the reason why we should even be making an issue out of something which would test the credulity of many of O’Neill’s compatriots in the States.
"British football is rich in bigotry (think Rangers and Celtic)." So wrote Paul Hayward in the Daily Telegraph only yesterday, responding to the many issues thrown up by the ‘friendly’ between Spain and England, and at the same time acknowledging that this country cannot be regarded as completely civilised. Imagine, then, the 1970s.
Rare enough an American coming to Scotland to play football but add the spicy ingredient that is religion and the advice to anyone is: stand well back. O’Neill to his credit did not shy away from the challenge presented to him when he told his club, Hartford Bicentennials, to find him a team in Europe and subsequently learned that the fates had been in mischievous mood: "Hey, dude, we gotcha a cool little club in Scawtchland," he was told, before his broadening smile quickly froze: "Glasgow Rangers".
Although a 21-year old graduate of Bridgeton University in Connecticut who’d lived in the States for the majority of his life, O’Neill knew what this meant, even if his club - who made the initial approach due to a friendship between Willie Waddell, the former Rangers manager, and a Hartford official - didn’t. Both his parents hailed from Paisley and college inter- sessions were spent on the west coast of Scotland with his aunt. One such vacation, indeed, saw him train with St Mirren when Alex Ferguson was manager. This, though, was different.
In 1976 a player who’d later assume the role of President of the Celtic Supporters’ Club in Kearny, New Jersey, turned up at Ibrox Park hoping that the breadth of the Atlantic would be distance enough from his background. Ringing in his ears was his father’s warning that he "wouldn’t get into the Ibrox tea-room, never mind the dressing room".
Rangers legend Willie Thornton - "one of the nicest men I have ever met" - collected him at the airport, carrying a placard with "O’Neill" written across it. It was one of the last occasions the American would feel anonymous. "There was a lot of inquisitiveness right from the off," he remembers. "Initially it was just: who is this person? But then it shifted almost immediately from who I was to what I was."
His religion was no secret: "I had asked them if they knew what I was because I didn’t know if it was appropriate." He was given the green light, if you will, although he suspects some pressure had been brought to bear on the Ibrox club to change their perceived policy of barring Catholics.
"There had been a riot at Aston Villa shortly after I had arrived and the sectarian pot was bubbling," says O’Neill. "I think the club was under pressure, perhaps even from the SFA, to change policies which had been in place for the previous 103 years. If they did have other Catholics then they were certainly not rubber-stamped and publicised the way I had been. I heard rumours of there having been others. Names like Don Kitchenbrand were banded around."
Had O’Neill become a first team fixture we might regard him the way we do Mo Johnston - as a high-profile trailblazer. There is no denying that he failed in his bid to make the grade at Ibrox, mustering not even a single first team appearance. But O’Neill suspects it was not entirely his own fault, a view substantiated by his prodigious goal-scoring record for the reserves and the curious fact that while he played against all other teams, he was dropped for matches against Celtic.
"We won the reserve treble that season and I played against every team bar them," he says. "That tells you the story. I was not going to be put in that situation. It was not explained to me but I think you’d had to have been from another planet not to have understood it. I didn’t think it was for me to go and question it. I let it go and for the next fixture was back in the team."
O’Neill, who shared digs with Kenny Watson in Mount Florida, isn’t pig-headed enough to claim he should definitely have been a regular first team player, although manager Jock Wallace said he showed "promise". This was a Rangers side on the way to winning the treble, a team full of internationals.
"You have to look not only at the atmosphere of the day, but also the players we had," he continues. "Derek Parlane was in the position where I would have been playing. If he should have fallen out of form there were three of us at least who would have vied for his place. Throwing me out there in front of a crowd who knew what I was, well, I think they thought it would make things more difficult for me."
In the end it was something more tangible which prompted his return home after less than a season - the open-heart surgery required by his father. He returned to the NASL of Pele, Best and Beckenbauer, joining Dallas Tornado and what sounds like a late-night blues combo - the Memphis Rogues. Later he would switch leagues, blackballed due to player union activity, and ended up scoring the winning goal in an ASL league-play off for Rodney Marsh’s California Lighnin’.
If he regrets anything about his Scottish sojourn it’s that he never returned to play first team football for a non-Old Firm team: "St Mirren, Ayr, Kilmarnock - I think that could have been achieved."
He clearly craved a release from the partisan world of the Old Firm, where a player could be defined by what he was, not how good he was. Now, though, the 50 year-old O’Neill is less inclined to seek distance from at least one half of the great divide, and plans to be at Parkhead next month for the Champions League match against AC Milan.
Today, In Kearny’s Irish-American club, he will watch the Old Firm clash on satellite television, able, at last, to proclaim his love for Celtic from the rafters: "People ask me how can I support Celtic? I tell them passion and profession are two different things. I am an ex-president of a Celtic supporters’ club and was a passionate Celtic fan even when I played for Rangers, but never made an issue of it. That would just have been silly."