The Bhoy from Kilrea
Those of you familiar with the north of Ireland will perhaps know the village of Kilrea. It sits close to the River Bann which marks the boundary between County Derry and Antrim and is a fairly quiet home to around 1500 people. It was not untouched by the troubles but the local population is robust, friendly and for the most part reasonable. It can boast a few notable inhabitants such as Hannah Shields who was only the second Irish woman to scale Mount Everest. The local Gaelic athletic club, the ‘Padraig Pearse’s GAC’ have had mixed fortunes over the years. Their under 16 team won the inaugural Championship in 1966 and the team contained a skinny lad who was to be a major figure in modern Celtic history. Coming from a family of nine was perhaps the initial grounding in teamwork which taught him that the whole is often more than the sum of its parts. Being the sixth child of nine and having four brothers and four sisters might also have taught him the skills required to get on with a group of diverse people. I speak of course of Martin Hugh Michael O’Neil.
Martin O’Neil came to Celtic in the Summer of 2000. The club had just finished a dismal season 21 points behind Rangers as the managerial reign of John Barnes and Kenny Dalglish ended in disappointment and some acrimony. His previous managerial record at Wycombe, Norwich and Leicester suggested that he was a Manager who got the best out of players and possessed the sort of man management skills not seen at Celtic Park since Jock Stein’s day. O’Neil quickly removed the dead wood and uncommitted players such as Viduka and brought in players who combined pace, power and ability. These included Sutton, Thompson, Valgaeren, Agathe, Douglas and of course Neil Lennon. This pool of talent was blended with the best players still at Celtic Park when Dalglish and Barnes departed and this included men like Larsson, Petrov and Lambert. The Celtic support sensed a revival was afoot and flocked to Celtic Park to see if O’Neil’s team could challenge Advocaat’s Rangers side for the title. The first test was the Old Firm game of August 2000. Sutton had told the press that it was time for Celtic to ‘Put Rangers in their place.’ Was he talking nonsense or did O’Neil’s Celtic have what it took?
Some moments in Celtic games live forever in the memory. That astonishing Old Firm game of August 2000 provided me with one of those moments. Celtic had stormed into Rangers from the kick off and Sutton and Petrov had them 2 goals up in the opening 8 minutes. Celtic Park seethed and roared as Rangers teetered on the edge of a total collapse. From my seat in the North Stand I could see Moravcik twist and turn in the Rangers box, leaving the hopelessly lost Ricksen on the grass. The astute little Slovakian looked up for a team mate to pass to. I could see Lambert arrive like a train at the edge of the box and roared ‘Lambert, Lubo!’ Of course the gifted little playmaker couldn’t hear me amid the din but he cushioned the ball to Lambert nonetheless and the Celtic number 14 duly smashed a low shot through a crowd of players and into the net. It was astonishing, Celtic were 3-0 ahead after just 11 minutes and mild hysteria gripped the Celtic support. History tells us that Rangers lost 6-2 that hot August day but they lost more than 3 points, that day. They lost ascendancy in Scottish football. O’Neil’s Celtic were now the top dogs and in that incredible 2000-2001 season blasted all opposition away as they secured the club’s first Treble since 1969. In so many games that season O’Neil is pictured leaping into the air as Celtic score a goal. The man from Kilrea clearly saw his stint at Celtic as more than a job. Like those of us who followed the club all our lives, O’Neil was at heart a Celtic man.
Far superior writers than I have tried to sum up O’Neil’s talent for blending talented individuals into a team. His previous management jobs had seen him achieve success with modest clubs. At Celtic his record was the best since Jock Stein. 3 titles out of 5 were won with the other 2 lost by 1 goal and 1 point respectively. This astonishing consistency saw O’Neil’s Celtic win 213 games, draw 29 and lose just 40 in all competitions. His record of 25 consecutive league victories remains as does his incredible 7 match winning sequence in Old Firm games. In 5 seasons, he won 16, drew 3 and lost just 8 of his 27 Old Firm games. He re-established Celtic’s reputation in Europe and led the team through that memorable run to Seville in 2003. After that cruel loss under the hot Spanish sun and the equally cruel end to the league season at Kilmarnock a few days later, O’Neil addressed his players in the Rugby Park dressing room…
‘Lads, I’m proud of every one of you. I couldn’t ask you to give any more than you have. You’re a great bunch of players and we will roar back and regain this title next season by 20 points!’
He wasn’t far off as his team won the SPL by 17 points the following year. Craig Bellamy spoke of O’Neil’s ability to build team spirit and get the best out of his players in his book ‘Goodfella.’ Bellamy said…
‘I knew there was an aura about him and something that made players want to play for him. Sure, he was nice but if you weren’t doing your job properly, he would be scathing and if you ever answered back, he would never forget it. He gave some of the biggest rollickings I had ever seen. But when you played well you felt brilliant because he told you how good you were. And he told you in front of everyone so that everyone else could hear. He made you feel like you were the best player in the world. The spirit he fostered at the club was the best I’ve ever seen. Not just among the players but among the entire staff. If you got fined for being late, you didn’t put it in a kitty. You had to go and give the laundry woman or the cook £500.’
Of course we all respected Martin O’Neil’s decision to leave Celtic in 2005 after his wife Geraldine was found to have a very serious illness. Some things are more important than football. But he left us a great legacy. Before his arrival only Wim Jansen’s solitary title had been won by Celtic out of the previous 12. Celtic under O’Neil announced that they were back and back to stay. Yes there would be disappointing years but the club would never again sink into the mediocrity which so hurt its legions of fans in the 1990s. They would also taste relative success in Europe and compete with some of the biggest names in football. Since O’Neil’s arrival at Celtic Park in the year 2000 teams of the calibre of Juventus, AC Milan, Barcelona, Manchester United, Liverpool, Lyon and Valencia have all been defeated by Celtic. It’s as if O’Neil made us believe in ourselves again.
Martin O’Neil led Celtic for the last time in May 2005. The Scottish Cup Final that season saw his team defeat Dundee United to win his seventh domestic trophy in five wonderful years at Celtic. He had endured some of the treatment our current manager has had to put up in Scotland, such as moronic bigotry from the less enlightened members of our society. He also endured much ridicule from sections of a hostile and frankly discredited Scottish Sporting media. He spoke up with courage and conviction about the disgraceful racism and bigotry Neil Lennon endured in a game at Ibrox saying it was akin to the monkey noises aimed at black players by some moronic fans at a Spain v England game. Few in the Scottish press pack backed up his claim which was and remains accurate. Few will forget him placing his arm around Lennon after that game and giving the clenched fist salute to the Celtic fans packing the Broomloan stand. It was typical O’Neil defiance. The bigots would never win with him.
And so it was for five wonderful years. We hoped it wouldn’t end but alas it had to one day. The skinny lad who helped the Padraig Pearse’s to their title in 1966 and had gone on to achieve wonderful things in another sport left Celtic to care for his wife in 2005. We at Celtic will always honour him as one of our own. He gave us memories which will endure for a lifetime and Celtic was immensely improved during his 5 year tenure. It could be argued that the wild spending which in the end killed Rangers was partially undertaken to try to compete with this excellent Celtic Manager. For me, Martin O’Neil can stand proudly with the Celtic greats.
Not bad for a bhoy from Kilrea. Hail Hail and thank you Martin.