Martin O’Neill is royalty. In his company, everyone is on form. They listen to whatever he says, no one interrupts him, no one contradicts. If you tell Martin a joke, you make sure it’s funny. Even the A-graders watch their words around him.
This kind of respect is hard won. He delivered as a player, possessing two European Cup winner’s medals. As manager of Leicester City, he reached three League Cup finals in four season, winning two.
His arrival in Glasgow in 2000 changed football here forever. Despite winning the league in 1998 Celtic were perennial underdogs for 12 years, forever trying to catch up with their neighbours. We have lost five leagues in the subsequence 18 years, but even during the darkest of those days, we remained a formidable opponent to all in Scotland.
Martin’s formula was straightforward. He liked defenders who would win and clear the ball. He liked wide players who were good at crossing the ball and he liked strikers who scored goals. The recent sequence of hundreds of corner kicks Celtic failed to converted over nine months was unthinkable in Martin’s time. Back then the panic was over how few goals we scored from open play. Send the ball forward, get it into the box, everyone attack the ball.
It worked. Then the (rightly) maligned Alex McLeish arrived at Ibrox, played three up front against Celtic’s three central defenders and won the first five trophies available to him. Alex. McLeish. Celtic responded by winning 25 consecutive league games in season 2003-04, the most dominating champions up until that point, but Larsson left and the stars of Thompson, Sutton and Hartson faded. There was no sustainable strategy.
If Martin O’Neill was sitting beside me right now I would be in awe, but the writing has been on the wall for well over a decade regarding his football management prowess. Martin had the magic potion in the late 90s and early 2000s. He went toe-to-toe with Mourinho – the latter only edged their epic encounter with far better players, but his systems were ineffective against modern players and on modern pitches.
He reached the Euros with Ireland, despite the remarkable (cough) choice of Roy Keane as his assistant, and only a pummelling by Denmark stopped Ireland reaching this year’s World Cup, but the style of football was little changed from his days in Glasgow.
The people of Leicester adored him, then some other guy came along and won the league. He is adored in Glasgow too, but some other guy followed him and took us into the once fabled ‘next stage’ in the Champions League, others beat Barcelona and won double trebles. He was a titan when he left town in 2005, eclipsed only by Jock Stein, but revisionism has not been kind.