Martin O’Neill On Nottingham Forest, Brian Clough, Celtic, Aston Villa, And Working With Roy Keane

Martin O’Neill On Nottingham Forest, Brian Clough, Celtic, Aston Villa, And Working With Roy Keane

An interview with Martin O’Neill, by Callum McFadden for WFi.

I want to start by asking you about Brian Clough and Nottingham Forest. How quickly was Clough able to transform the club following his arrival in 1975?

“Brian Clough absolutely transformed the club from top to bottom throughout his time in charge at Nottingham Forest.

“However, it was the arrival of Peter Taylor to work alongside Brian which is when we saw the very best of Clough.

“He took us from being a struggling Second Division side — the league that you would now call the Championship — who did not seem to be progressing too far, to becoming champions of England and back-to-back champions of European football.

“It is hard to imagine that ever happening again in the same manner in the modern game.

“Although Brian was instantly charismatic success did not follow immediately upon his arrival.

“It was around 18 months after his arrival when Taylor arrived as his assistant that we really started to take off even though he had gradually put his imprint on the side.”

You win the First Division title and the League Cup in 1979. That success is followed with back to back European Cup victories in 1980 and 1981 with a Super Cup victory in between. Can you put your finger on exactly what it was that Clough and Taylor were able to do that made Forest immortal in footballing terms? 

“The key to their approach was that it was remarkably simple.

“Not for one minute did Brian Clough not know about tactics because, of course, he did, however, he did not pay too much attention to the opposition.

“Everything was tailored around what we could do to hurt the opposition rather than worrying about their perceived strengths.

“Brian would not be dismissive of talented players or teams but he seldom spoke about them in the lead-up to a game.

“He was always very positive and he kept his messages to us as players clear and concise.

“He never over-complicated us as players with umpteen messages before a game which I agree with because no matter how smart you are as a player, you do not want a dozen instructions to worry about before a game.

“If there are too many instructions from a manager then you start to wonder who should be taking to the field.

“Everyone knew their job in his side and it was a matter of doing it to the best of your ability which we often did.”

martin o'neill nottingham forest

Circa 1970: Nottingham Forest Football Club player Martin O’Neill. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

How did playing on the European stage with Forest compare with playing in the English top flight?

“That’s a good question, Callum.

“Brian Clough did not alter his approach from domestic football to European competition.

“The only difference that we would sometimes encounter would be a sense of going into the unknown against certain opponents because we did not have the instant access to information on players from all leagues and clubs like we do now thanks to Google and the likes.

“For example, our quarter-final opponents in the second European Cup success were Dynamo Berlin. While we knew that they were a fine side, we relied on first-hand accounts from scouting as to what they were like as opposed to being able to sit and watch clips of them in action.

“That was the only major difference between both competitions.”

The trophies that Forest won under Clough speak for themselves and the legacy of that team will live forever. Given you played a big part in that, what were your personal highlights from that era at the club? 

“My personal highlight is winning the second European Cup because I was on the field of play in that game, as opposed to the first success when I was injured.

“Being on the field when the final whistle is blown to crown your team champions of European is incredibly special. That is a terrific memory.

“Another memory that sticks out is the semi-final against Cologne at the City Ground which was the most atmospheric I have ever heard the stadium.

“We drew 3-3 on the night which meant that we had to go away and win in Germany to get to the final. Thankfully, we were able to do that and reach the final to cap off a wonderful run in the competition.”

As well as representing Forest, you played for clubs such as Manchester City and Norwich City. However, I want to focus on your international career with Northern Ireland because you captained your country at the World Cup in 1982. How much does that mean to you when you look back? 

“It was another incredible moment for me in my career but also an incredible moment for the country.

“For us to beat the host nation Spain and qualify for the quarter-finals of a World Cup was nothing short of remarkable.

“What made that victory even more special for us was such a tough game as Mal Donaghy was sent off and we had to hang on against Spain.

“It was terrific and that game is like yesterday to me because it meant so much to everyone at the time.”

You went into football management following your retirement as a player. Was that always the plan post-retirement?

“Absolutely not (laughs). Believe it or not, it was not on my mind at all despite the fact that I worked under Clough and Taylor who were two of the best teachers you could ask for.

“I did not think about it until I met Peter Taylor in Nottingham city centre a couple of years after retiring. He told me that he thought I would go on to become a manager which surprised me.

“He told me that he was disappointed that I did not go into management after retiring which led to me giving it much thought when I went home that evening.

“That chat resonated with me and I started to apply for managerial posts that were vacant at the time.”

The managerial post that put you on the map was at Wycombe Wanderers who you led into the Football League from the conference with a haul of trophies along the way. How do you reflect on your time at the club overall?

“Wycombe was a terrific time in my career and a vitally important time in my career too because if I had failed at Wycombe then the chances are that I would not have had another managerial opportunity in football.

“Thankfully, things worked out positively for myself and for the club and I can honestly say that I put my heart and soul into Wycombe during my time in charge.”

You left Wycombe for Norwich City before moving on to Leicester City. You win promotion to the Premier League at Leicester and follow that success up with two League Cup victories at Wembley. What are your standout memories from that time in your career? 

“We had a really poor start at Leicester when I arrived. The fans were in uproar because it seemed like I could not win a game. Things were a real struggle.

“I think it took me eight league games to register my first wins which made me think even at that early stage that any chance of promotion was gone.

“However, credit to the players and my staff, we battled back and took off from there which led to us winning promotion to the Premier League which was the aim.

“I absolutely loved my time at Leicester and winning the League Cups was special and a great moment for the players and fans alike.

“Hopefully, they still remember it fondly if they can excuse those first couple of months (laughs).

“It was always going to take something special for me to leave the club and Celtic were the special opportunity I could not turn down.”

You arrived at Celtic in 2000. The team finished 21 points behind Rangers in the season prior to your arrival. Did that faze you in any way when you considered the move to the club?

“Yes! The answer is yes. Absolutely, I was concerned. I have to admit that.

“There was nothing in pre-season in Germany and Ireland that convinced me otherwise. I had a definite concern and held on to the hope that if I could add a couple of players that the tide could steadily turn.

“I would have been happy if Mark Viduka stayed at the club because he was a very good striker but when he departed, I knew that I wanted to sign Chris Sutton from Chelsea as his replacement.

“Honestly, signing Chris and his contribution in my first season was massive to us. He settled down and he instantly became a big player for the team and an excellent foil for Henrik Larsson.

“Henrik loved playing with Chris and vice versa. Bringing Chris to the football club gave us the lift that we needed because had we not signed him at that time then we may not have beaten Rangers 6-2 early on in the season.

“Things could have been very different had that not happened.

“Mind you, while we are talking about Chris, I would like to point out that he told me that he would never go into punditry and now he is doing it (laughs). But joking aside, he was brilliant for the club and a big landscape changer for me.”

Was the 6-2 win over Rangers in only your 5th league game in charge of the club, the first time that you felt that you could achieve something special in your first season at Celtic?

“At the time, even after that game, I thought that it was too early to make that assessment.

“With hindsight, as Celtic fans like yourself point out to me, that might have been the moment that there was a changing of the guard. It might have been.

“Rangers did defeat us 5-1 around November time which was a blow but even then, I felt that we had built an inner strength as a team to see us through any troubled waters that were to arise in our way.

“From there, we went on to win the league title by 15 points which was an incredible achievement for everyone.”

You became the first Celtic manager since Jock Stein to win a domestic treble at Celtic. You did so in your first season in charge. Can you put into words how special that was for you? 

“It was an exhausting season but an incredible season for the club.

“The first time that I felt that we could win a treble, or at least that we could be in contention to do so, was after we won the League Cup final against Kilmarnock in March of that season.

“We were ahead in the league and after winning our first trophy together, I felt that we could go on and achieve the Scottish cup as well.

“It was absolutely fantastic that we went on to do just that. However, as you know Callum, the amazing thing in Scotland is that even after winning a treble, you do not get any real time to dwell on it and bask in your own glory because the focus immediately shifts to the next season and whether you can do it all over again.

“As well as being a rewarding season, it was also a mentally exhausting season for me and I took a short holiday of around 7 to 10 days to relax before getting back to fully focusing on the job that was to come in the next season.”

Your recruitment at Celtic is considered to be strong with the likes of Chris Sutton, John Hartson, Alan Thompson and Neil Lennon signed. However, you also inherited three top-class players in Henrik Larsson, Paul Lambert and Lubomir Moravcik. Where like almost like a godsend for you as a manager? 

“They absolutely were like a gift from God for me.

“Lubo Moravcik is the best two-footed player that I ever worked with. Without question. He could go either side and he did not have a weaker foot.

“I got to work with him when he was around 33 years of age. He was such a talent that I honestly think that if he had been around 27/28 when we played Porto in Seville in the UEFA Cup final then there is no doubt that we would have won the match.

“I have no doubt about that. He would have sprinkled all sorts of magic over Seville. I genuinely believe that.

“Porto had some great players but Lubo could have dealt with anything that was thrown at him and he would have caused Derlei and co all sorts of problems.

“Paul Lambert was a great player and one who did well for Celtic and for me but he also did very well for himself. To go from St Mirren and Motherwell to trials in Germany and earn a move to Dortmund before going on to win a European Cup is nothing short of remarkable.

“Then you get Henrik Larsson who was nothing short of sensational. A great all-round footballer and a great goalscorer. Brave as a lion and someone who could play with different strike partners as he did with either Chris Sutton or John Hartson.

“It is no wonder that he is revered by Celtic fans. He is as good as you can get. The pleasing thing for me is that he left Celtic to join Barcelona and play a key role in their European Cup success of 2006, before playing at Manchester United in his late thirties.

“He showed that he could perform on the biggest stages in European football, in La Liga and in the Premier League. A remarkable talent.”

Overall, how did you manage the aforementioned high-profile players that you had at Celtic. Did you try and simplify things as Brian Clough had done for you in your own playing career? 

“That is it, Callum. I allowed these kinds of players the scope to play. When you do that, you get it back tenfold.

“Allow them to play their natural game and create an environment that allows them to succeed by having ample depth across the squad to support them which I did also.

“Do not confuse them with too much information. They did not need that. They needed encouragement and man management which is what Sir Alex did so well at Manchester United with players like Eric Cantona.

“Players like that need to be allowed to go and play. That is what I aimed to do and the rest followed in terms of trophies and success due to their ability to perform.”

You left Celtic in 2005 for family reasons before returning to management over a year later with Aston Villa. You were so close to taking the club to the Champions League during your time in charge. What are your main memories from your time at the Villains?

“It was another really good time in my career. My aim was to take the club into the Champions League.

“We were competing against the likes of Manchester United under Sir Alex, Chelsea under Mourinho and Arsenal under Wenger so it was difficult because they had bigger budgets than what we had.

“However, that did not stop us aiming for the top four. We went close in two seasons and qualified for the UEFA Cup which was great but the Champions League is where we wanted to be.

“We were also close to winning the League Cup in 2010 against Manchester United which I believe we would have done had the referee sent off Nemanja Vidic for a last-man challenge.

“We won a penalty but he was only booked which I believe was wrong. Vidic should have gone and who knows what could have happened. It would have been lovely to win something with Aston Villa but as I say, Champions League was the aim.”

You managed the Republic of Ireland from 2013 to 2018 and qualified for Euro 2016. You raised eyebrows by hiring Roy Keane as your assistant. What inspired that decision? 

“I had worked with Roy at ITV whilst they were covering Champions League football so we got to know each other over the course of a few years.

“We talked about the possibility of working together should I return to management in the future if he was available.

“We did not think too much more into it than that then the Ireland job became available and I asked Roy to join me and I was delighted when he did.

“Roy was manager in his own right and he was never short of giving an opinion but he would go with my opinion even if we disagreed which made things work.

“Roy was excellent to work with and the players knew him as a player, and he was a strong influence on the group which was great.”

How did managing at a major international tournament compare with playing at such a tournament?

“When we got to France in 2016, it was great. It was like a dream really because I had seen the old footage of Jack Charlton leading Ireland at a major tournament and the scenes that came with it.

“I wanted to recreate some good moments for the fans because they follow the team everywhere and thankfully, we could do that during the tournament.

“We had thousands of fans supporting us in France and beating Italy thanks to Robbie Brady scoring a brave header which is the highlight, for sure.

“The big difference from playing to managing in such a tournament was the fact that in the weeks building up to the tournament, you are doing all that you can to build not only a strong team but a strong environment around the place, too.

“Whereas, when you are a player, you are focused on your own individual performance and fitness in the build-up to a tournament.

“Both experiences were fantastic.”

Last but not least, Martin, you have just released your autobiography: ‘On Days Like These: My Life in Football’. Why have you decided that now is the right time for the book? Does it suggest that we may not see you returning to the dugout in future? 

“A really good question. Writing the book was an enjoyable experience which gave me a purpose and verve.

“I have straddled a fair few decades in football so it was good to reflect on them and share my reflections.

“However, in all honesty, if an opportunity was to arise again in management then I would most certainly consider it.

“I have not sought any opportunity out but if such an opportunity was to arise that suited me and a prospective club then I would give it much thought. Let’s see what happens.

“Regardless, I have had a wonderful time in football and that is what I have tried my best to articulate in the book.”