There are already murmurings in the Republic of Ireland about Martin O’Neill’s autobiography. On Days Like These, which charts five decades in football, signs off with a withering take-down of Keith Andrews, Stephen Kenny’s assistant with Ireland. “Stephen’s lieutenant finds himself in a hotter seat in the dugout than the one he occupied in a TV studio when he was an excoriating critic of mine,” O’Neill writes.
The 70-year-old knows fine well what the response has involved. “I’m ‘bitter,’” O’Neill says during extended conversation in a London hotel. “So I’m not allowed to defend myself? Nobody likes criticism but I think in my career, for the most part, I’ve taken it reasonably well.”
What jars in relation to Andrews is his position within O’Neill’s profession. “If Roy Keane was doing punditry work and said I’d made a mess of something, I might disagree but I would accept it from someone who has played at that level, has managed himself and knows the pressures you are under,” O’Neill says. “I have a level of earned respect for that opinion but not a lower-leaguer who wouldn’t know what it is like to win a medal. And who is now finding how difficult it is to win football matches.
“It is difficult. Alex Ferguson would still be concerned today about going to Southampton and winning. So you can imagine what it may be like when, for the most part, at international level you are facing opposition who are superior to you.”
The relationship between O’Neill and the Irish football media during a five-year international tenure remains a source of fascination. We shall return to that later. It would be unfair, as some have suggested, to depict O’Neill’s memoir as a score-settling exercise. Yes, there is occasionally acerbic comment – one would surely expect no less – but an extraordinary career which scaled playing heights under Brian Clough before touching managerial greatness at Celtic and Leicester is depicted with an entertaining tone. There is self-deprecation throughout.
O’Neill’s memories of a “mesmeric” Clough remain vivid, from the moment of their initial meeting in the winter of 1975. Clough instantly promoted O’Neill to the first team but was not of a mind to fawn. “Hey, you: Stop putting your mate in the shit. You look like a boy who would put your mate in the shit,” was the message in an early training session.
Nottingham Forest made history at home and abroad without those involved ever knowing how fabled their run was. “You were on this ride,” O’Neill says. “You are going to West Ham and expecting to win, whereas the previous year trying to beat Bristol Rovers was a struggle. I don’t think we realised it was special until it was over. The night we lost to the Bulgarians [CSKA Sofia in 1980] in the European Cup, you thought: ‘Wow, that’s it.’
“For a complicated man, he played a very simple game. He was as good at tactics as anybody but that’s not how he is considered. He is considered a motivator, a shouter or a charmer. He knew the game inside out. He told us things tactically during games that stood the test of time. He would say something to you on a Monday, contradict himself on a Friday and you would believe both.”
Billy Bingham made O’Neill the first Catholic captain of Northern Ireland, which represented a seriously bold move in the early 1980s. “Billy said: ‘We get the results, everything will take care of itself,”” O’Neill recalls. “As it did.
“Early on, I would have taken a bit of criticism but not nearly as much as Billy for making the choice. He never told me about it, he never said it bothered him. He was prepared to go for it when for an easier life he could have bypassed me.”
O’Neill sees the irony, then, in feeling he was an “outsider” or a “northerner” when taking charge of the Republic. Relations with the press were permanently strained. “I think they felt there was a level of arrogance and conceit about myself. It just never worked, almost from day one.”
O’Neill guided Ireland to the last 16 of Euro 2016, with a squad no neutral onlooker could reasonably portray as stellar. A year later the hammering at the hands of a Christian Eriksen-inspired Denmark ended another World Cup dream. O’Neill was taken aback by what came his way. “I deserved criticism,” he says. “But it was an absolute outpouring. The gates opened. It was actually a playoff game for the World Cup after a group where we were fourth seeds.”
O’Neill is effusive in his praise of Keane, who has not managed since departing Ipswich in 2011. Bert Johnson, O’Neill’s youth coach at Forest, imparted advice which he believes applies to Keane. “You get a reputation in life for being an early riser and you can lie in bed all day,” he says.
“A driving force, a motivator … things get buried. Roy Keane can talk eloquently about the game. I was hoping he would take the Sunderland job when he was last in the frame for it because I think he could still make a super manager. Would tactics be a hinderance? Absolutely not. He really has something to offer.”
O’Neill had been a high achiever Wycombe and Leicester before taking on iconic status for Glasgow’s green half. His book tells the eye-opening story of his wife and daughter being turfed out of a hotel room on the outskirts of the city before an Old Firm game on the seemingly controversial basis the Rangers team were staying there. Yet generally, and unusually for someone in that environment, he adored the goldfish bowl. “A fantastic rivalry between two unbelievable clubs,” he says. “I don’t include Rangers in that to be sycophantic. I loved the rivalry. I loved the antagonism. Sometimes it was overpowering and you looked for relief but there was something brutally brilliant about it.”
O’Neill once had aspirations to take Aston Villa into the Champions League. A breakdown in relations between manager and owner, Randy Lerner, put paid to that. O’Neill claims Lerner agreed to keep James Milner despite the £24m overtures of Manchester City and to bring Scott Parker to Villa, before changing his mind. O’Neill earlier had brief interaction with the famous Villa custodian Doug Ellis, who castigated the Irishman for using Martin Laursen as a late substitute during a draw at Arsenal. The move cost Villa £3,000 in an appearance fee, which riled Ellis. “I finished the tea given to me and remind him that we have a big game on Wednesday night against Reading,” O’Neill writes. “‘I might need Martin again if that’s OK with you, Mr Chairman?’ I walk out the door and don’t hear the reply, even if there is one.”
O’Neill was hurt by what he perceived as the premature ending of his time at Sunderland, the club he had loved since childhood. Salt was rubbed into that wound by the insistence of O’Neill’s successor, Paolo Di Canio, that the squad lacked fitness. “I always tried to steer clear of that – it is disrespectful to the previous manager,” says O’Neill. “He gets about 15 new players in the summer and of course I’m looking on from a distance. They can’t get results, the crowd aren’t happy. Somebody asked him about fitness. ‘Ah, my fitness is for Christmas onwards …’ You’re lucky if you can get to Christmas.
“A really fine footballer. Terrific. What he knew about management, you could box in a thimble. We all might have some sort of ego but it can’t all be about you.”
What may well prove to be the final O’Neill chapter in management came back in Nottingham. Again, he was swiftly jettisoned, in 2019. “I had turned Forest down a couple of times,” he says. “If someone had said I would get 19 games, I wouldn’t have bothered. Especially when we won the last three. I just wanted 18 months. If I didn’t get them up [from the Championship], I’d have walked away anyway.”
O’Neill remains youthful in body and mind. If his days in the dugout are indeed over, he quite rightly refuses to fully concede as much. “Could I manage at the top level? I don’t think those things leave you. The spirit, the determination, the passion and drive … My last breath on this earth is when those things will leave me.”
On Days Like These by Martin O’Neill is published by Macmillan (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.