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Sunday, May 30, 2004
Martin O'Neill profileBy Ian Kehoe
There was always something of the comic book hero about Martin O'Neill . The fiery Northern brogue, the manic glimmer in the eyes, the shock of curly hair.

Managing Celtic FC by day, while untangling miscarriages of justice by night. He's Dick Tracy in a tracksuit.

This is not just a caricature. Martin O'Neill has been fascinated all his life not just with football and footballers, but also with murder cases. He queued to watch the trial of the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, and was a regular spectator at the Rose West ``House of Horror'' trial.

He even travelled to Dallas and inspected the site of John F Kennedy's assassination. After surveying the grassy knoll, he hailed a taxi to take him to Lee Harvey Oswald's house. The driver said he did not know the address but O'Neill, from his studies of the case, was able to direct him.

His interest in the nefarious stems back to the trial and subsequent execution of James Hanratty in the early 1960s. Hanratty was found guilty of murdering Michael Gregston and raping his girlfriend Valerie Storie in a field near Slough in England.

O'Neill followed the case intently and was unconvinced by the verdict. To this day, he resolutely believes Hanratty was wrongly hanged, and he even visited the judge who presided over the trial to develop his theory further.

``I have been to so many murder scenes with Martin,'' his wife Geraldine has said, ``that I sometimes think that one of these days I will be murdered in one of these places myself.''

His forensic mind and stubborn refusal to conform to any sort of orthodoxy has reaped dividends for O'Neill's other persona - football manager. Last weekend, he collected another Scottish Cup with Celtic to add to the League title that they had already bagged a few weeks earlier.

His success in Scotland has not gone unnoticed. Each time an English Premiership manager is sent to the gallows, the name Martin O'Neill is on everyone's lips.

He is mentioned almost weekly as the heir apparent to some imminently vacant throne. His name appears on every short-list, the manager that every club wants. He is vocal and passionate, successful and loyal.

Last week it was Liverpool. Before that it was Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Leeds and Aston Villa. It has even been outlandishly suggested that the Co Derry man could be England manager one day.

His style of management is a combination of fire and brimstone and tactical astuteness. He is constantly animated and famed for his rabble-rousing rhetoric.

But when did Martin O'Neill, the small kid from the little town of Kilrea in Co Derry, metamorphose into Martin O'Neill, the most sought after football manager in Britain?

There is little chance of O'Neill answering these questions himself.

Although he is a loquacious television pundit, he is much less forthcoming when talking about his private life. The Celtic press office politely but routinely turns down requests for interviews.

``Martin is just too busy,'' a press officer said. Even Alex Montgomery, author of Martin O'Neill: The Biography says he never attempted to talk to his subject.

A rare insight into his psyche came earlier this month when he granted BBC Northern Ireland exclusive access for a one-hour documentary. He spoke candidly of life at Celtic and his relationship with Brian Clough, his former manager at Nottingham Forest.

Yet, there was no real discussion of what makes him tick, about his sectarian upbringing, about what it felt like to be the first Catholic to captain the North's football team.

It was a shame, as O'Neill's entire life has been an apprenticeship for where he stands today.

He was born Martin Hugh Michael O'Neill on March 1, 1952, the third eldest son in a family of nine. His father, a barber, was a founding member of the local GAA club.

From an early age his parents, Leo and Greta, must have sensed a touch of the divine about him; when he was three, he fell from a second floor window and escaped with just a broken elbow.

Home was a terraced three-bedroom council house and, depending on the time of the year, the garden was Wembley or Croke Park, Wimbledon or Lords or St Andrews. For O'Neill, sport did not have a religion. Protestants and Catholics shared the town.

For the O'Neill family, education was the currency of advancement. He passed his 11-plus exams, winning a scholarship to St Columb's Christian Brothers School in Derry in the process. It is the only school in the world to have educated two Nobel laureates - John Hume and Seamus Heaney.

By the end of the 1960s, O'Neill's father decided it was time to uproot the family to Belfast. His son enlisted in St Malachy's, eventually leaving with three A-levels - an A in Ancient History, and Bs in English Literature and Latin. He then studied law at Queen's University.

One college friend said: ``He came across as full of himself at times. He was smart and he knew it. He played Gaelic football for the Derry minors and he was gifted at the football. And of course, he loved the law.''

Decisions had to be made, however, and O'Neill threw in his sporting lot with football. In 1971,while at Queen's, he signed for Irish league club Distillery. He scored two goals in the 1971 IFA Cup Final and was called up for duty with the international side.

Scouts were lurking and Nottingham Forest made serious overtures to O'Neill. His parents told him it was his own decision, and so he set off to make a name for himself. Some 285 games, 45 goals, two European Cups and one league championship later, it turned out to be a wise choice.

His relationship with legendary Forest manager Brian Clough was strained at best.

Opposites attract, similar minds repel. ``At the time I was a young fellow around the club,'' said Clough's son, Nigel. ``Even then I could tell that Martin was always going to give as good as he got.''

Clough senior, never one to let accuracy get in the way of a good old yarn, said that Martin was ``talking before he was walking''.

He added famously: ``Whenever we had a row he'd always say to me `I don't have to do this you know, I can go back to university'. So one day he said this to me and I said `here you go' and I handed him a plane ticket I had bought for him to fly back home.''

It was in O'Neill's character to stand his ground. He once replied by letter to an article about him stating that he should be grateful that Forest had dragged him out of the quagmire and that he would otherwise have been a lay-about.

Such criticism rankled with him. He wrote back: ``I was plucked from law studies at Queen's University, not from a queue at the Labour exchange.''

Success flowed at international level. He won 64 caps, 35 of them as captain, and led the North to the second phase of the 1982 World Cup, a campaign which included an unforgettable 1-0 win over hosts Spain in Valencia.

For O'Neill, a Catholic, it was a defiant move to take the captaincy, often seen as a poisoned chalice in a country divided by sectarian apartheid. He discovered that sometimes sport could rise above such things and he accepted an MBE in 1982.

After leaving Forest, he played out his career at Norwich, Notts County and Manchester City. He entered management in 1985 and took charge of non-league outfits like Shepshed Charterhouse and Grantham.

``In two years he spent only stg£500,'' Tony Balfe, his chairman at Grantham, later recalled. ``And that was after we made several visits to watch the lads.

"Afterwards he was worried that he had spent stg£500 of the club's money.''

In 1990, he took charge of Wycombe Wanderers and propelled them from Vauxhall Conference obscurity to the English second division and the FA Trophy twice.

After a short spell at Norwich, he moved on to Leicester, which was a mid-ranking division one side when he took charge in late 1995. Despite failing to win any of his first ten games, the club was promoted that season.

Under O'Neill, they became a bottom-half Premiership side and won the League Cup twice.

Even then, his animation on the sideline was legendary. One commentator dubbed him the ``Michael Flatley of the bench''. The Leicester players tell a story of a game against Wimbledon in 1998.They suffered a pitiful first half and entered the changing room. When they got there, the shower was already on and O'Neill was waiting.

The manager began his rant. They were a disgrace and he demanded better. As the venomous tirade reached its crescendo, O'Neill turned and walked into the shower room. Still clothed in his trademark tracksuit, he returned to the players dripping wet, continuing the rant.

After turning down a number of lucrative posts, O'Neill finally decided to leave for Celtic in 2000. His wife Geraldine and daughters, Aisling (22) and Alanna (20),were the only ones consulted about the move. He was certain he wanted to go to Celtic. It was partly because of the club, and partly because of who he was.

His father, now dead, claimed he once told his son to ``walk to Parkhead'' if the job ever became available.

O'Neill has likened the experience at Celtic to being in a goldfish bowl. After all, he had not gone to Glasgow simply to manage a football team; he was there to lead a people from the wilderness.

Celtic and its fans could not live with failure - that's what attracted him.

O'Neill moved to Glasgow immediately and purchased a house for stg£500,000. Two months after arriving there, he oversaw a famous 6-2 win over Rangers in the Old Firm derby.

Celtic romped to the Scottish league title that season by 15 points, adding the Scottish Cup for good measure. The success has continued ever since.

In 2002, Rangers fans planted a giant Union Jack in his front garden, fuelling rumours that he was on the verge of leaving the club because his family were tired of the sectarian taunts that went with the job at Celtic. However, he stayed put and kept winning silverware.

He guided the side to the final of the Uefa Cup last year, but lost to Portuguese side Porto.

By all accounts, O'Neill is as passionate about life as he is about football.

He is partial to the odd hand of poker and the occasional flutter on the horses.

``More of a bookie than a player,'' said a former team-mate.

One staff member from his days at Leicester said: ``He organises a Christmas night-out for the backroom staff at clubs he manages. He regularly pays for them to go to dinner and to the theatre.

"He is a likeable character.''

He retains close ties with the North; when he discovered he would not be able to attend a reunion of the Distillery Irish-cup winning side, he arranged for the team to fly to Scotland for a night out with him.

This is the private side of the Martin O'Neill experience. In public he watches every word, avoids controversy like the plague but compensates his audience with virtuoso performances of self-deprecation.

It seems that no one can do self-deprecation quite like O'Neill. In interviews, he is a perennial pessimist, never willing to talk his teams up regardless of the situation.

In many ways, he is the quintessential lawyer. Naturally quick-witted with a sharp tongue, he ponders decisions with mathematical precision. He might say a lot, but he gives away little.