Mr Motivator

Martin O'Neill restored pride to Celtic Park

Martin O'Neill is regarded as one of the great motivators of modern football. His record of achievement since succeeding John Barnes as Celtic manager in July 2000 confirms this view.

Three Scottish Premier League titles and some heady nights in Europe, including a Uefa Cup final, have catapulted the Kilrea man into the top bracket. If and when he decides to leave Celtic Park for the challenge of another managerial post, he will go in the knowledge that he takes the credit for regaining Celtic’s position as one of the major clubs in world football.

‘I understood when I came here first, all the frustrations that had built up over the years,’ said O’Neill after three seasons in charge in the east end of Glasgow. As a self proclaimed Celtic fan in his boyhood, he shared the pain of the club’s gradual decline since the era of Jock Stein.

‘Rangers had dominated Scottish football all through the 90s, so I could understand and talk about having a bit of battered pride,’ he reasoned on the BBC documentary Man and Bhoy in 2004.

‘And perhaps maybe over the past couple of seasons we’ve restored that. Then with the bit of pride being restored, you restore a bit of hope and then the bit of expectation.’

There is no doubt that expectations have remained high since his arrival from English Premiership club Leicester which he guided to promotion and success in the Worthington Cup in 1997.

As a player with Nottingham Forest, Norwich, Manchester City, Notts County and Northern Ireland, the former St Malachy’s College boy was as articulate off the field as he was gifted on it. A law degree at Queen’s was forsaken to try a career in the Football League and the inside forward who came to prominence at Irish League club Distillery never looked back.

O’Neill endured the disappointment of being left out of Forest’s European Cup winning side of 1979 to play in the team the following year when it defeated SV Hamburg in the final. In 1982, he was a central part of the Northern Ireland team that qualified for the World Cup finals in Spain. His performance in the 1-0 win against the host nation was one of the most memorable of the 64 caps he gained.

When injury forced O’Neill’s retirement from the game in 1986, he eventually worked his way into management. Graduating from non-league Grantham Town to Celtic in 13 years has proven to be quite a journey.

O'Neill himself tries not to get too carried away by what he has achieved. His acknowledged love of the game is tempered by the belief that the work of others, such as doctors and medical staff, is infinitely more important than that of a football manager.

‘I see people like that saving lives – that’s where the accolades are bestowed. I've always loved football, but in the context of life it isn't really important. The important things are people saving lives. It puts my life into perspective and that’s not playing it down. That's how I feel about it.’

O'Neill speaks from personal experience. His wife Geraldine is undergoing treatment for cancer and in January he came to Belfast to lend support to a new men’s health awareness scheme.

One of O’Neill’s outstanding qualities is his ability to make others believe in themselves. Fellow managers can only look on with a sense of awe and admiration at the way in which he has transformed the careers of players. There are those who thought that the signing of Alan Thompson, Chris Sutton, John Hartson and Neil Lennon would prove a huge waste of money. How wrong that opinion has turned out to be.

Players who were described as having average ability and whose move to Scotland was seen as a transfer to a footballing backwater, have flourished. Old Firm encounters against Rangers and regular appearances in front of 60,000 supporters for domestic and European football have given them a new lease of life. The players and the supporters would walk over hot coals if Martin O’Neill asked them to.