Martin O’Neill sat at the large round table, alone. The DJ was playing ‘I Believe in Miracles’ by Hot Chocolate, which had filled the dance floor with celebrating players, wives, board members and assorted hangers-on. Leicester City had just won the Worthington Cup for the second time in three years but O’Neill wasn’t thinking about that. He was thinking about the phone call he had received from an Irishman a few weeks back. A phone call that stirred the emotions of his childhood.
O’Neill watched the board members at the bar having a drink and basking in his success. The success that they didn’t want him to have. They wanted Mike Walker to replace Mark McGhee. They said, “Martin O’Neill would manage Leicester City over their dead bodies”. Well, they were alive and well, loving cup finals, top ten finishes in the English Premier League, European trips and play-off wins.
Yes, that play-off win. He chuckled as he remembered a defeat against Sheffield United early in his reign. The fans stormed the stadium, kicking doors, smashing windows and the players had to hide. He had to hide as they wanted his head. One of the board members dragged him to meet a few of the fans to get rid of them. He told them to give him time. He told them he would be successful. After the play-off win, he regrets only sticking his tongue out at those fans. He should have gone full ‘Cloughie’ and gave them the fingers.
The thought of those same fans travelling back to the Midlands after seeing their small club win a major trophy warmed him. He understood why they were angry as they had seen success under Brian Little and Mark McGhee. They had also seen a different style of football but he knew that they hadn’t seen success like his. Success delivered by an ex-Nottingham Forest player. That annoyed some of them. Parochial Midlands rivalry being a matter of life and death in little minds.
The ‘Over My Dead Body’ Brigade, who knew nothing about football, hadn’t seen success like this. They also thought they knew about boardroom politics and could out-smart him. He knew about both, though. They weren’t a match for him. They didn’t like him but were willing to stop him from going to Leeds United when they wanted him. He met with Leeds. Leeds, or “Dirty Leeds” as his mentor called them all the time and, despite the bitterness and Arctic cold he felt within Leicester, he couldn’t break his contract. Leeds, Dirty Leeds, also didn’t feel right. Everton were also interested. He wasn’t.
The ‘Over My Dead Body’ Brigade were willing to make him the third highest-paid manager in the Premier League behind Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger. He knew that was to appease the fans, but he had a clause in his contract. A clause inserted after Leeds United wanted him and were refused permission to talk to him. A natural break in the summer. They couldn’t stop him moving and the Irishman who called knew that.
He wondered where John Robertson was. He wasn’t with the dancing throng or standing at the bar with Neil Lennon. He was probably outside having a smoke and a whiskey. He needed to go and speak to John about that phone call. Martin pushed the seat back to go out and find him when club Chairman, Martin George, swung from the dance floor. Martin sat back down. It was George who appointed him, George who had backed him and George who knew that he had had enough of the politics of Leicester City.
George put down his drink and poured Martin a glass of sparkling water. It was as private as he was going to get.
“I wouldn’t have expected big Matty Elliott to be the hero today! Some signing Martin!”
“Yes, he played well, fully deserves the limelight but we made hard work of it.” he replied.
“That doesn’t matter, look at what we won, look at what we achieved. History books will just show our name on the trophy with a team of waifs, strays and forgotten players that you built!”
Martin squirmed and felt himself blushing. He was about to default into self-deprecating mode when George looked straight at him and said:
Dermot Desmond shifted position in his leather seat. He had sat here on many occasions, concluding business deals in the comfortable confines of his own private suite in an exclusive London hotel.
This was different, though.
Unlike previous meetings, he was here before his guest. He didn’t want his Irishman guest to wait on him. This was different and this meeting had to go right. The right impression had to be given. The right ambition had to be shown. The correct amount of charm before it could be called smarm. He was about to deal with an operator who was just as meticulous and intelligent as him.
He knew all about the troubles that he was having currently and how he had dealt with them by always being one step ahead, but more importantly, being extremely successful. What he had faced was downright hostility and undermining of his position. This Irishman had come through it to be the name at the top of everyone’s wish list when vacancies were to be filled.
He knew that, for the first time, his friend, Alex Ferguson, saw a successor in a rival. One that could follow in his Old Trafford footsteps if he decided to step down. That job would be difficult to turn down and he knew that the Irishman fancied the role. Who wouldn’t?
There had been others. They had all been rebuffed. Just like he had turned him down at first. But, he kept on calling, kept on talking and kept on attempting to get this meeting. He spoke to people who knew him, knowing full well that his investigations and interest would get back to him. He knew that Liam Brady would have been on the phone before he was in the taxi after leaving the meeting in this very room.
Other board members wanted Guus Hiddink to replace John Barnes. He thought that was a bigger risk and one that seemed to replicate what Rangers had. A well respected Dutchman was in charge over there doing things lavishly and arrogantly. He figured that Hiddink wouldn’t be there for the long haul, he had itchy feet syndrome and seemed to get bored very easily. There would be no emotional tie and Celtic needed this.
Getting his Irishman to agree to be manager of Celtic Football Club would make waves in Britain. It would impress Sky TV and make entry into England and its riches easier. We would also be getting a top coach who had worked well with meagre resources, who wasn’t idealist, who adapted his style to suit his surroundings, who knew football economics but was also charismatic and tough like Italian shoe leather, who wouldn’t crumble in Glasgow.
The door of the suite opened and in sprang Martin O’Neill. He had energy as he walked towards the table. Dermot stood up and shook his hand. In front of him was the man who turned Leicester City into a top ten Premiership side with shrewd buys, organisation, intelligence and enthusiasm. A man-manager cut from Brian Clough’s own green sweater. He had to make him the next manager of Celtic at all costs. He couldn’t allow him to leave this room without that being agreed. It was then he made the decision to get straight to the point.
He went into his suit pocket and took out a set of keys and placed them in front of O’Neill.
“Martin, here are the keys to Celtic, you’re getting full control to do what you wish.”
Martin O’Neill was nervous. He was walking along a London hotel corridor to meet his new bosses. Who wouldn’t be nervous? They were expecting Guus Hiddink, not him. He thought back to when he was appointed instead of Mike Walker and knew that this could be a no-win situation. But he was determined to make it work. This wasn’t just a move to manage a bigger club, like moving to Leeds United would have been, this was an emotional calling.
Dermot had tapped into this. His words sang like a childhood lullaby when talking about the club. Martin remembered that his dad said that he should walk to play for the club if he ever got the chance. That chance never came but he knew that his late father would be saying the same thing today. This wasn’t Leeds, Dirty Leeds. That would have been a career move only. This was Celtic Football Club, this was the home of the Lisbon Lions, and the chance to follow Jock Stein.
He remembered that night in the mid-seventies when he went to a game at Celtic Park. He stood at the back of the West Terracing looking around in awe of the surroundings. He adored the green and white on the pitch. He stored the noise, the smells and the chants in his mind. It was the most romantic place he had ever been. It had changed since then but it’s soul was just the same. A place where Irishmen feel at home. This wasn’t a football decision it was a life decision. This was Celtic.
His demands hadn’t been over the top. He knew where Celtic were and what would be needed to get them back to the top but also what would keep them on top. There was quality and leaders in the squad but they lacked confidence and needed reinforcements.
Paul Lambert was there. Paul Lambert: a Champions League winner. Johan Mjallby: a Swedish international. The type of no-nonsense player that he liked. A slight but committed right-back in Jackie McNamara and a solid captain in Tom Boyd.
Then you had the talismanic Henrik Larsson. A dream of a centre-forward who had been the talk of England before his leg-break. These players were experienced and good enough not to suffer fools gladly. These players had no need to impress him but he had to impress them. He had to hit the ground running making correct decisions quickly.
He knew that he wanted a few more leaders and men. Men who were damaged or unnoticed and had points to prove. He was taking over a team that finished 21 points behind their rivals and, firstly, he had to let them know that they knew they were in a contest. He needed big personalities. He had that at Leicester – Steve Claridge, Matt Elliott, Muzzy Izzet and Neil Lennon.
Yes, Neil Lennon. The only man who knew what Martin was feeling at this moment in time. A player who had already said that he’d crawl up the motorway to follow him. Martin needed Neil Lennon more than he needed the other names on his list. Martin needed Neil Lennon more than the new training facilities and revamped academy set-up that he had been promised by the smooth-talking Irishman. Neil Lennon was Martin on the pitch. Brian Clough had John McGovern, and Martin had Neil.
But first, he had to go through the door that had been opened for him and win over the Celtic board with his vision. He was confident. He had already been given the keys and this day was in his DNA.
“I want to introduce to you the new manager of Celtic Football Club, Mr Martin O’Neill,” said Dermot Desmond, as he entered the room behind him.
Those words felt so good.
The final whistle went and it was bedlam. Steve Walford jumped on Martin O’Neill’s back. John Robertson moved quicker than he had done for years. The substitutes were all hugging and screaming. It felt like the day Glasgow’s football tectonic plates had shifted and created a brand new world for the next generation. The day that time stood still and allowed beauty to shine.
Celtic had just beaten Rangers 6-2 at Celtic Park. Celtic had been 3-0 up inside the first 12 minutes and the country had been in a state of disbelief since then. Martin’s eyes darted through the chaos. He spied Dick Advocaat, who looked like he had seen his own funeral with no one in attendance. Martin bounced over to the Rangers manager and grabbed his hand with the victorious grip of a changing of the guard.
There was still work to do, but, from the moment he arrived, he had felt something special was going to happen. Truthfully, he had that feeling from the first phone call from an unknown Irishman. The players had responded to him and he had responded to them. They had all responded to Celtic Football Club.
As he walked up the tunnel, he was trying to get his words in some sort of order for the players he would be addressing and the up-coming TV Interview. Both needed different tones but the correct message to be communicated. The players needed to enjoy this moment but be focused on the many challenges ahead. He had to enjoy this moment but still remember and work out solutions to the many challenges ahead.
As he stood outside the dressing room door, welcoming his wonderful players, his mind was already sharp and clear. As he shook Chris Sutton’s hand, he looked at him and knew the answer. Closing the dressing room door he went into a scene of jubilation.
It felt like hours had passed since the final whistle. The reality was it was under half an hour. Martin returned to his office to tidy up a few things before appearing in the hospitality suites. They would be wild, but those celebrations were warranted. Like he told the players, he would tell the fans: “Enjoy tonight, but nothing is won yet.”
For him to be confident of that happening, he knew what he needed. He went up to the white board in the office and moved the magnetic counters into a 3-5-2 formation. He took a step back and looked at the counter at the tip of the midfield three. Underneath he wrote the name of the Irishman, ‘Neil Lennon’.
He needed to make a phone call.
Kevin GrahamWatch Professor Willy Maley with A Celtic State of Mind