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2 June 2005 Edition

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O'Neill's Celtic legacy BY MICK DERRIG

It's been the best five years of my adult life. It brought back happy memories of childhood and re-affirmed what I am all about.

I am, of course, referring to Celtic. Every tribe needs a chieftain, and in Martin O'Neill from Kilrea we had one of the best. In an age of agents and kickbacks, O'Neill loved the club he joined as manager in the summer of 2000. His Zebedee bounce into the air every time his team scored a goal was a study in the trajectory of delight.

In defeat he was, like me, inconsolable.

Throughout his adult life, his wife Geraldine had been at his side. At the press conference in Glasgow announcing his departure, he said that although no one had a monopoly on bad times, she was ill and it was time to give her who had been at his side all of these years "some time back".

He looked drained, anguished and torn. Ultimately, he knew he was making the correct decision for him and his family.

The Celtic board moved swiftly to appoint a successor, Gordon Strachan, a belligerent little Scot who will no doubt do well. However, that is a scéal eile. Martin O'Neill deserves plaudits that are rarely earned in the age of 24-hour-a-day celebrity crap.

The Celtic he took over in the millennial year was an embarrassing mess. The first big test wasn't the facing Rangers; it was dealing with an alienated and hostile press corps.

He took them to a fine restaurant in Glasgow and started to spin and to woo. He told them that the current Rangers squad was miles in front of his Celtic lads. "Rangers are the benchmark" he repeated as his mantra for his first few months in charge.

As the first league encounter with the blue half of Glasgow loomed, he continued to talk up Rangers in glowing terms.

He was spoofing. The cute boy from Kilrea was doffing his cap to a drunk B Special at a lonely crossroads on his way back from GAA training. Life in Sammy's wee Ulstur had taught him well how to deal with the country cousins of Old Stormont who run Scotland's media and sporting establishment.

The red, white and blue brigade were up for the humbling of the bespectacled fenian. Half an hour into the match it was 3-0 to Celtic. They didn't see it coming. It was guerrilla warfare with goalposts.

It ended 6-2, the largest score in an Old Firm game in decades, an ambush.

Just before the match, Dermot Desmond, the big cat of Tiger Ireland who had insisted that O'Neill be brought in instead of the board's favourite, Dutchman Guus Hiddink, asked O'Neill how the first Rangers game would go. Desmond was visibly nervous, according to my source. O'Neill looked him in the eye, the self-effacing diffidence suddenly gone. "We'll hammer them!"

That season saw a domestic treble — the first since Jock Stein's days, the following season they won the title again and the season after O'Neill guided the Bhoys to the UEFA Cup final. Whatever the highs or lows, the fans knew that O'Neill cared about what the club was about.

His threadbare lightweight midfield was exposed in the second match against Rangers in the November of his first season at Celtic. He immediately played his hand with the board. Like a judo fighter, he turned a defeat into a victory.

The defeat to Rangers wouldn't have happened, he told them, if you had authorised the purchase of Neil Lennon from Leicester. They caved in. he got the Lurgan Bhoy into the engine room of the team that would contest Porto three years later in the UEFA cup final.

O'Neill dubbed Lennon "my little fat man in midfield" and they were a double act like Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane.

With Lennon on board, there was an audible click at Celtic Park, as a machine for winning soccer games at the highest level was finally assembled.

Given that they were both northern nationalists, these five years have re-anchored Celtic's Irish identity in a way that could only have been dreamed of ten years previously, when Fergus McCann, Celtic's economy class Malcolm Glazer, decided that the Irish identity of Glasgow Celtic Plc was something the marketing guys could do without.

The hallmark of O'Neill's Celtic team was one of 'we ain't beat till the night watchman switches off the feckin floodlights'. At the height of its powers, his Celtic team beat Porto, Juventus and Lyon at Celtic Park. The East End of Glasgow, draped in Irish flags, became a place where the cream of European soccer was scared to visit.

Celtic under Martin O'Neill came home. For the first time in the club's history they ran coaching weeks in Donegal. Bonds that were there were strengthened.

Celtic, despite what the ironically named Fergus McCann thought, are indeed an Irish institution.

Five years is a long long time in professional soccer for a manager. In those five years the hand on the tiller knew what the club was about, knew what the founders of the club were about and we are, because of that, stronger for it. Celtic is a much more Irish-rooted organisation now than in the 1990s. The Irishness of Celtic is no longer assailed. Martin O'Neill was a crucial part of that.

A very interesting woman said to me a few weeks ago that in love affairs, the best thing you can do when the two of you finally part company is honestly conclude that you had a positive impact on the person you shared time with. As with many other matters, she's dead on.

The machine Martin O'Neill assembled five years ago is finally creaking and falling apart. The team failed on the last day of the season and lost the league on goal difference. The previous season, Celtic had won the league by 18 points. The decline is there for all to see.

Perhaps part of that decline, apart from the board's resistance to re-investing in the team, was that the forensic mind that once trained for the law was distracted by the worries of home. O'Neill's decision making is, as usual, flawless.

Martin O'Neill leaves us immeasurably improved in every sense.

Years from now I'll take out pictures of those times and smile warmly in reminiscence and wish that those days would, somehow, return.

That's what a great love affair should give you.

An Phoblacht Magazine


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