If there is a hierarchy of Celtic royalty – those most of us would feel nervous in front of, Martin O’Neill is sitting on the throne. For those of us who are old enough, his impact on our lives is significant.
When he arrived in 2000, Celtic were marooned in the wilderness. An against-the-odds title win in 1998 was a fading memory as the Rangers motor picked up pace: 11 titles in 12 seasons, most of them won with plenty to spare.
On 26 August 2000, the world changed. Nothing has been the same since. We put six goals past Rangers, announcing not only that we were likely to win the league, but that this time, the foundations were built on granite. We lost five leagues in the 19 years since then, but even those seasons were tight, five won and lost on the final day. Martin was the enzyme for all of this.
His tactics were beautifully simple: be hard in the middle of the park, get the ball down the wing, have players there who can cross the ball, and have the best headers of the ball in the business there to attack those crosses.
It worked and then it stopped working. Alex McLeish won a treble with lesser players, because he figured out that playing three up against our back three was practically kryptonite to Celtic. Tactically, Martin had been rumbled, but his magical quality was never tactics.
Listen now to any of the players he had at Celtic and the respect they hold him in remains absolute. His sheer presence blew them away when he first met them in 2000, and for the next five years. They would run through walls for him. If he said “You’re one of the best players in this league” they played like one of the best players in the league, such was their faith in Martin.
Training sessions were left to others, tactical changes were anathema, key recruitment resources were largely SPL opponents and Match of the Day. The model had many weaknesses and would inevitably crash. Just as when Dalglish left Stein a generation earlier, when Larsson left O’Neill, the magic disappeared.
You and I know Martin’s tactical weaknesses at Celtic, so does he. He knows more about the management game than any of us, so he evolved; eventually, but this was not his natural territory. He was always playing catch up. The game has moved on and Martin’s principle strength, that significant force of personality, was never going to be enough.
He arrived in a militant Nottingham Forest dressing room that had seen off other managers. Roy Keane was his enforcer. If that’s all there was to the game, Forest would have flourished, but this is not the 60s. You can’t bully your way to authority.
I’ve seen enough managers and players to know they all ‘move on’ sooner than we do, and I’ve no illusions that Martin is an exception to this. He is an intelligent man and entitled to find things other than Celtic to fill his life. But still, Celtic Park is his, that is where his throne waits. He won the European Cup for Forest, not Celtic, but he changed our lives forever. For that, I will be eternally grateful, and always nervous in his company.