Martin O'Neill OBE

01 Dec 2011


It’s said that a week is a long time in politics. If that’s true, then those same seven days must represent an eternity in the world of football.

When The Manager sat down to talk with Martin O’Neill he was ‘between jobs’ and clearly keen to get back to the dugout. Just four days later, his wish was unexpectedly granted when he was appointed manager of Sunderland.

O’Neill makes no secret of his childhood allegiance to Sunderland, but it is pedigree not sentiment that has secured his appointment at the helm of the Wearside club. Adept at assembling teams built on foundations of strong camaraderie, he brings to Sunderland a wealth of experience and an impressive list of honours that includes two League Cups, three Scottish Premier League titles, three Scottish Cups, one Scottish League Cup and an appearance in the UEFA Cup final (where his Celtic side were beaten by José Mourinho’s Porto).

In a fascinating and insightful interview, O’Neill told us of how his love for the game began, talked us through the highlights of his career to date and revealed the managers who have inspired him over the years.

 When did the football bug first bite for you?

My earliest memory would probably be the World Cup final of 1958. I was very young and our family didn’t have a television. Three houses away from us lived the man in the village who owned TV shops and he invited my family to come down and watch the World Cup final. It was an afternoon match and the curtains were closed so that we could see the screen without any sunlight coming through. A very young man called Pelé scored a couple of goals as Brazil beat Sweden in the final.

In 1960 Real Madrid were the big club side of the time and one of my older brothers, who I looked up to greatly, had read the Puskas autobiography which revealed that as a kid Puskas could keep an old tennis ball up with his feet 200 times without dropping it. I genuinely believed that if I could keep a tennis ball up 200 times that I would be as good as Puskas. To begin with it used to fall off my foot after about two or three goes so before my brother headed back off to university he said ‘when I come back for the midterm break I want to see a real big improvement’. Every single minute I had that tennis ball with me; it even went to school me. Within three months I could keep the tennis ball up 200 times and when he came back from university I was able to do it.

You were studying law in Belfast when Nottingham Forest came calling. Was it a big decision to drop out of university?

Interestingly for me I didn’t think there was any decision to be made because football was what I wanted to do. However, my mother who was a great believer in education and had done everything in her power to have all of the family educated was less convinced and thought being involved in law was more of a proper job. I went from being an amateur player for Distillery in Northern Ireland on the Tuesday evening to a professional by Wednesday afternoon after Nottingham Forest paid £15,000 for me. It was a fair difference to the lifestyle I had been used to; training every day was a joy not a burden but the training was hard for me.

That first year was exciting in many aspects because I scored on my début and then a couple of weeks later I scored at Old Trafford against George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law but it was a big adjustment. This was a time of amazing dreams for me even though Nottingham Forest were struggling that entire season. We got relegated that season and the football club as a whole was just trundling along. John Robertson, Tony Woodcock, Viv Anderson, Ian Bowyer and I were waiting for a Messiah to arrive... and he arrived in the shape of Brian Clough.

You went on to great success under your ‘Messiah’. Were you conscious that you were playing for one of the all-time greats?

We knew that we were having a really good time and to me this was what professional football was all about. You had camaraderie within the team, Brian Clough was one of the greatest managers of all time but you weren’t every single day in awe of that fact. There were times when he would produce something and you’d think ‘yeah that is sensational’ and he would be very unorthodox in his approach and you’d think ‘yeah that’s very bright, it’s very simple, but it’s a great ploy’.

What managerial traits of Brian Clough’s did you admire?

Not everything was always perfect and rosy in the garden. He no doubt had moments when he would have done something and might have gone back into the room and spoken with Peter Taylor and thought ‘wait a minute that might not have been so clever.’ But overall most of his decisions were brilliant; he knew the game inside out. Sometimes when you are dealing with a group of players you can’t always give the individual the amount of time that he might want. I felt that I  needed more individual attention and perhaps John Robertson and others sometimes felt the same. Despite my arguments with him, overall his man management was par excellence. The biggest compliment I think I can pay him is that he and Peter Taylor (who was excellent for Brian Clough and for the club as well) took a team from the second division to win the League Championship, a couple of European Cups and a couple of League Cups to give us an extraordinary time of our lives for three or four years. We had great players that would have graced a lot of teams but without Brian Clough I know we wouldn’t have won the Championship, two European Cups and two League Cups.

Did you start to think of yourself as a leader when you became captain of Northern Ireland?

Billy Bingham made me the Captain in 1980 just before we started the 1982 World Cup campaign and that was a great honour for me and it pleased me greatly. At that time Nottingham Forest was the team who were heavily involved in Europe and we had already won the European Cup the previous year. The responsibility of captaincy really grew on me over a couple of years. We qualified for the 1982 World Cup in Spain from a difficult group that included Sweden, Portugal, Scotland and Israel; eventually Northern Ireland and Scotland went through. I think getting the captaincy gives you really great confidence both in your performances and your ability to a lead a group of players. Obviously Billy Bingham gave the team talks but I’d get in a huddle with the players as it were and be able to converse with players and hopefully get them into the right frame of mind. It’s the role that you are always hoping as a manager that your club captain will be able to do for you.

How important were your first steps into management with Grantham Town, Shepshed

Charterhouse and Wycombe?

Being Grantham Town manager did me a lot of good. I treated it as if it was the best club in the world and treated the players with great respect. I felt I learnt a great deal from taking that route. By the time that I joined Wycombe a couple of years later I felt as if I’d had a really decent grounding and of course the days at Wycombe were just absolutely splendid. I had a great group of players and it was a smashing club which was very well run, providing an excellent platform for me to do my job.

Looking at the team you assembled at Leicester City it is evident that you create a very definite culture of camaraderie when you join a club; would that be a fair assessment?

I know that lots of people will say that camaraderie has to be strong and at Nottingham Forest it was very, very strong indeed and it wasn’t always through the manager doing that. We as a group of players nearly all went out together and Brian Clough would never have discouraged that because he would have felt that this culture was so, so important. I always feel at a club that if you can create it yourself or it happens vicariously, having a very, very strong spirit is essential. At Leicester we were fighting the odds every week so it was particularly important. However, that would be a disservice to the players who came to Leicester with a point to prove. The likes of Neil Lennon, Muzzy Izzet, Robbie Savage, Stevie Claridge, Matt Elliot... you could go through every single one on them and they all had something to prove in the game. I think when you get that desire collectively with a group of players, each week having a point to prove, never feeling that they had achieved something then the camaraderie and achievement goes from strength to strength.

How much does that culture guide your recruitment policy?

In an ideal world I absolutely look to do this. However, is there such a thing as an ideal world now? The chances were that 15 years ago you were managing a group predominantly of British players but nowadays you are working with an eclectic bunch and you have to make subtle changes in your approach. If you are taking a player from the other side of the world and thrust him into the Barclays Premier League and he gets a bit lost then he needs a bit of help and individual attention. So you create camaraderie whilst still taking the individual’s needs into consideration.

You’ve managed in the ‘old firm’ cauldron and well as the Barclays Premier League; what’s your approach to managing stress and expectations?

It goes with the territory and you know the minute that you take on the job that it will be stress related and full of tension. I think that every manager will say that this is what draws you to the profession. It is an addiction and you do want to take on the challenge time and time again. If you start thinking about stress from the minute that you step into the job you’ll never be able to get up and function effectively as a manager. So you go along with the environment, you try and win football matches because stress is alleviated by winning games and you know that if you don’t win the games you will find yourself in a spot of bother. It certainly seemed in the times of Shankly, Clough and Bill Nicholson that managers only got sacked as the very last straw if results had been going so badly for a fairly lengthy period of time. Nowadays somebody is waiting to take your job if you don’t get a result in two games. There is a different type of media now driving things and everything is immediate but you expect that and cope with it.

Other than Brian Clough, who has inspired you in your career?

In Brian Clough, I worked under probably the most charismatic manager that has managed in England and from my experience there is no question about that. But Clough did manage at a great time when players had little or no say and he could run a football club in a manner that he wanted to and lots of things were in his favour as a manager at that time. There were very few channels on television so he became a very powerful figure who was terrific as his job. Although I didn’t recognise it every day, I was very fortunate to work under such a great manager. Nowadays you can’t think other than Sir Alex Ferguson as someone to admire. To manage at a club of the calibre of Manchester United for 25 years and have that level of success is absolutely extraordinary. To still maintain that enthusiasm and constant determination is remarkable. 15 or 20 years ago Italy seemed to be the divine power and so you looked up to those managers maybe more than those who were managing in Spain at the time. I have admiration for the likes of Italian managers who have achieved over the years like Marcello Lippi and Giovanni Trappatoni who is still doing well now with the Republic of Ireland which is terrific for him. Plus Carlo Ancelotti who excelled as a manager in his own country and then arrived in the Barclays Premier League and won the double at the first time of asking.

Now Spanish football is at the forefront and I think that Pep Guardiola’s approach at Barcelona is absolutely fantastic; he also happens to have the best player in the world playing for him which helps greatly.  José Mourinho has made things happen during his career so hats off to him in this modern day to do so exceptionally well. When he looks back at his career perhaps winning the Champions League with Porto might still rank as his greatest achievement amongst his host of great achievements at Chelsea, Inter and Real Madrid.