x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

It's a long way from Grantham Town

During Doug Ellis' idiosyncratic reign as chairman of Aston Villa, it was claimed that of Britain's one million unemployed, around half were managers he had hired and fired.

Manager Martin O'Neill has created a promising young side at Aston Villa.
Manager Martin O'Neill has created a promising young side at Aston Villa.

During Doug Ellis' idiosyncratic reign as chairman of Aston Villa, it was claimed that of Britain's one million unemployed, around half were managers he had hired and fired. A cruel exaggeration, the managerial body count under 'Deadly Doug', as he was less than affectionately known, was a mere 13 in his 38 years in charge. And not everyone was handed compulsary redundancy; Ron Saunders, for example, who assembled the side that won the English championship in 1981 and the European Cup the following season, chose to walk out, albeit it was rumoured, because of a disagreement with Ellis over team selection.

Now Villa have a new owner in American billionaire Randy Lerner (whose portfolio also includes the Cleveland Browns of the American NFL) and a new manager in Martin O'Neill who has guided the club into fifth place in the Premier League. Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool may still regard themselves as the nation's 'Superpowers' but there is a growing feeling that under O'Neill's expert hand, the 'Big Four' are poised to become the 'Big Five'.

A European Cup winner under Brian Clough ("I looked on him as a bit of a smart-ass," said Cloughie of their relationship) O'Neill displays none of his mentor's conceit and delights in poking fun at his abilities as a player. "When I was manager at Leicester City, our centre-forward, Emile Heskey, was jeered for the entire 90 minutes during one game against Leeds at Elland Road. Throughout my career I tried in vain to get away crowds to give me stick but I was never good enough. I'd have loved to have 40,000 fans baying for my blood but generally they didn't even notice I was playing."

Capped 67 times by his country, however, O'Neill is rightly proud of his achievements and when the Leicester City doctor appeared in his office one morning bearing a photograph of the Northern Ireland '82 World Cup squad to be used in a no-smoking promotion, the Ulsterman started reminiscing: "Gerry Armstrong, what a tournament he had. Look, there's Jimmy Nicholl." "How come you know them?" the doc inquired innocently.

"Because," she was informed with a steely glare, "that's me in the middle of the front row. I was the bloody captain!" O'Neill's managerial journey to Villa Park has been by a circuitous route, beginning at non-league Grantham Town where former club secretary Pat Nixon recalls: "His obsession was total, even when we were playing in front of three men and a dog. What best sums up Martin was after we'd lost at Spalding and he rang me up at one o'clock in the morning to ask if I thought their third goal had been offside. When I reminded him of the time, all he said was, 'Gerraway. Is that right...'?"

From Grantham to Wycombe Wanderers to Leicester where he led the club to two League Cup triumphs and into Europe before Glasgow Celtic came calling. One of nine children born and raised in a "Celtic mad" household across the Irish Sea in Kilrea, O'Neill took up his new position with the words of his late father, Leo, etched on his very soul. "If you ever get the chance to manage Celtic," dad advised, "walk to Parkhead, son."

O'Neill did not walk, preferring to arrive in style by jet plane and chauffeur-driven limo to the stadium, where thousands of Celtic supporters turned out in noisy acclamation. In his five seasons at Parkhead (before taking a sabbatical from football when his wife, Geraldine, was struck by lymphoma), Celtic won three league titles, three Scottish Cups, the League Cup and reached the Uefa Cup final in 2003. Passionate to the point of manic, former manager turned TV pundit Ron Atkinson says of O'Neill: "Martin runs up and down that touchline faster and more often than his number two John Robertson did during his playing days at Nottingham Forest.

Aston Villa fans have become accustomed to the sight, but as O'Neill says: "I will calm down either when I retire or die..." As Irish as Riverdance, O'Neill can be scatty and clear-thinking at one and the same time, notoriously unpunctual yet painstakingly methodical, scrupulously courteous but prone to occasional verbal banana skins. Hence the reason he caused outrage when he welcomed back Leicester striker Ian Marshall from prolonged injury with the thoughtless observation: "People have recovered from Aids quicker." Such is the admiration and respect he commands, however, O'Neill was quickly forgiven.

O'Neill will talk football for hours, but off duty follows a vari ety of pursuits, not least criminology. Having studied law before embarking on a football career, O'Neill is fascinated by courtroom trials and murder scenes. After visiting the grassy knoll in Dallas, from where John F Kennedy may or may not have been assassinated, he jumped in a taxi to see the spot where Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. When the cab driver admitted he was unsure of the way, such was his research that O'Neill was able to provide directions.

Will he remain at Villa Park or does an even bigger adventure await? Three years ago a reporter on one tabloid clearly thought he had solved the popular riddle of who will eventually replace Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford by publishing the revelation that Fergie and O'Neill had been spotted taking wine and breaking bread together at an out-of-the-way table in an out-of-the-way Italian restaurant in an out-of-the-way village in Lanarkshire. Putting two and two together the inference was clear. As well as passing over the freshly baked rolls, the Glaswegian was handing the Ulsterman his job on a plate.

Alas for the conspiracy theorists, when O'Neill read the detailed account of their supposed dinner date, his reaction was one of wry amusement rather than burning embarrassment that their cunning plot had been rumbled by an eagle-eyed waiter for whom the word 'exclusive' represented the Special of the Day. "Apart from the word 'the'," O'Neill disclosed, "the rest of the article was complete piffle."

Ferguson's companion, as it turned out, was his brother, Martin, who, as a Partick Thistle wing-half of the 1960s and United's present chief scout in Europe, has probably fulfilled all his ambitions in football and can be safely regarded as a definite non-starter in the managerial stakes. It is a yarn that could yet come true, however... rphilip@thenational.ae