Martin O’Neill likes words. And there’s something that a man with 50 years of trophy-winning experience, both as a player and as a manager, finds particularly entertaining.
“You know what word always makes me laugh when I hear managers talking these days? Project. I learned very early that there is no such thing as a project. There is no five-year plan either. You have a five-minute plan. Project, five-year plan: please trash them.”
O’Neill has been thinking a lot about the meaning of management lately: he has just published his autobiography. There is nothing unusual in this, many football figures publish an autobiography, some more than once. But what’s unusual is that O’Neill wrote it himself. No ghostwriter is required; every word is his. And what emerged took him quite by surprise.
“I read it and thought to myself: I was too grumpy for my own good.”
O’Neill speaks to Telegraph Sport at a London hotel. Even though he looks much younger than his 70s because he’s in the crown, he’s still a tense bundle of energy. His book is also full of vim. Not to mention the conflict stories. Like when he refused to play for Nottingham Forest after being picked as a backup by Brian Clough. He’s not taking a nap: he now believes he’s acting like a spoiled brat.
Moreover, when asked how he would deal with a player who refuses to play as a manager, he gives a definitive answer.
“I would definitely pass him by. Now I look at it from a manager’s point of view and think: How dare I not show up? As a manager, I find it hard to forgive.”
He explains that this predicament arose because, as an actor prone to self-doubt, he needed reassurance. Instead, Clough – and his deputy Peter Taylor – took the opposite: He barely got any positive mention during the five glorious years he’d accumulated trophies in Nottingham Woods. Theirs was the most fragile relationship.
“We were in the locker room when I said something, all the other players were changing,” he remembers one confrontation. Clough said nothing. But Taylor walked around the room, pointing at everyone one by one, and said to me, ‘You’re not okay, you’re only here because of him, her and him. Then he came to someone else, paused for a moment, and said, ‘Well, it’s not that much.'”
Long considered a master of motivation, Clough remains a mystery to O’Neill.
“To date, I find it completely surprising. I was looking for a seal of approval from him,” she says. “It wasn’t coming my way. The way he took care of me wasn’t very good. He may have felt that I should be treated that way, that I was a bit of an upstart.
“Maybe if I had known when he walked through that door that I would collect a second European Cup in five years, then yes, I would have put up with anything. But he was cruel to me.”
The irony though is this: O’Neill admits that when he became manager, he looked more like Clough than he could have imagined while suffering under his idiosyncratic methods.
“I think it was inevitable that I would take something from Clough, get the essence of management from someone who was really successful. Cloughie, for all his charisma, was something that stood the test of time. I definitely absorbed it all subconsciously,” he says.
At the very least, he accepts those who oppose him with contempt.
“It would be an empathetic approach if I had to leave someone I had time for as a player out of the team,” he says. “But if it was someone who gave me a few problems, I wouldn’t have a problem telling them. To be honest, I would take a perverse pleasure to tell them. Yes I had my favourites: they were usually the best players. But I never mind losing players that I don’t think are of any use to the team.”
It was O’Neill who had the longest and most successful managerial career of all Clough’s players. However, the big man never suggested that he follow him to the bunker.
It was Billy Bingham, Northern Ireland international manager, who sparked the idea. And after a short time with Grantham and Shepshed, O’Neill’s career took off when he promoted Wycombe to the league. But he says from the very beginning he was alert to the volatile nature of the profession.
“I remember Cloughie coming into the locker room after a tough time at a board meeting and telling us, ‘The only thing you can be sure of in this business is the sack.'”
“This stuck with me. The idea of starting at the bottom and working your way up is nonsense. If you start from there and fail, that’s it. Full of challenges, your first real job may also be your last.
“I told myself early on that if I was going to fail, it wouldn’t be a lack of energy. I was outside watching a football game every night. I had to do this job.”
And it worked. After five years of upward momentum in Buckinghamshire, it was snatched by Leicester. Still, he was aware of the knife edge he was stepping on. And there have always been those who hastened to oppose his decisions.
“I remember we had a young fullback named Neil Lewis, whom I put on the bench a few times. Every week, right behind the bunker on Filbert Street, there was a voice shouting, “Bring Lewis!” I had to start a game with Neil for a week due to injuries.
“Within 20 minutes, the same voice behind me is yelling ‘Put Lewis down.’ ”
And he won, promoting Leicester to the Premier League, then securing the League Cup twice before heading to Celtic. For a Northern Irish Catholic, this was the ultimate job. And he did it brilliantly, winning every domestic cup and breaking a decade of Rangers domination.
But he resigned in 2005 due to his wife’s health, before reappearing at Aston Villa a year later. Here he encountered a new type of owner: American Randy Lerner.
“I think I could have handled it better upwards,” he thinks. “I never went into anything soothing. I had my lines. I felt that the results on the field supported me for everything I had to say in the boardroom. Maybe I should have been more diplomatic.”
Instead, he resigned from Villa and moved to Sunderland in 2013, where he was fired for the first time in his 25-year managerial career.
“This was a real shock for the system. Some managers may discard this as part of life: where is the next job? Not for me, I walked into a very dark room. It had a bad effect on me.”
Still, he rallied to take the Irish team.
“The difference between club and international management is night and day. If you play a game in March, you lose, and for the next three months, all you can think about is defeat. I’ve never been able to park defeat easily in my life. If I lose in a club game, my weekend is ruined. Three months were ruined in international competitions.”
Still, prompted by an unexpectedly friendly double action by Roy Keane, he led Ireland to the qualifying stage of Euro 2016. The pleasure he took from this performance did not spare him criticism, and he was released again after failing in the 2018 World Cup play-offs.
“I’ve never had a very close relationship with the Irish press,” he says. “You never see yourself the way other people see you, but I think they felt there was an arrogance there. That loss to Denmark in the playoffs was a stick to beat you.
This was followed by a short spell at Nottingham Forest, where he was once again fired, this time after serving in just 17 games. He has since tried to find work, but found himself surrounded by a new generation of technocrat coaches with his knack for powerpoint presentations and expected goal statistics.
Indeed, there is one word that this master of language finds particularly offensive when it comes to describing where he currently stands as a manager.
“Anyone who appears to speak a different language than currently put forward is considered a dinosaur,” he says. “I am not a dinosaur. I can easily adapt to any situation. And the fundamentals of the role haven’t changed since Cloughie’s time: find a way to win games.”
Which begs the question: will we ever see him pace nervously in a technical area again?
“Do I still believe I can manage at the highest level? Definitely. But then there’s something in me that even on my deathbed I’ll jump up and say, ‘I’m ready to go, I can still do it’.”
Days Like These by Martin O’Neill is published by Pan MacMillan (£22).