Football/Soccer

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill recalls abuse from Windsor Park crowd during early days as Northern Ireland player

Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham and Martin O'Neill after Northern Ireland's 1-0 victory over Spain in 1982.
Andy Watters

REPUBLIC of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill had to ignore the boo-boys in the Windsor Park terraces during his early days as a Northern Ireland player.

Kilrea native O’Neill, who announced his squad for the November 15 friendly against Northern Ireland yesterday, won 64 caps between 1971 and 1984 and went on to captain the North to the quarter-finals of the 1982 World Cup.

But in his early days the Derry catholic was the target of abuse from the stands.

“I had to battle through my early days there,” he said.

“There were tough matches with the crowd not accepting me at Windsor Park and things like that but you battle through it.

“I came through it and it was great.”

He joked that the stick he received might have been “because I was playing crap” but added that he understood what underfire Derry City born Republic of Ireland winger James McClean is experiencing at present.

McClean has been subjected to vicious abuse from a section of Stoke City’s support and on social media over his decision not to comply with the FA directive on wearing a poppy on his jersey.

With 3,000 Northern Ireland fans traveling to Dublin for next week’s friendly, there are concerns that McClean will be in the eye of a storm at the Aviva Stadium.

“It’s engrained in you so I know exactly what James is going through,” said O’Neill.

He added: “If this game had been up in the North, I think then I would be having a look at it.

“Not that I won't be now at this minute, but if this game was up North and he was going to be subjected to whatever he might be then, at the end of the day, I would certainly have a look at that.”

O’Neill deflected questions on his personal opinions on the poppy but said McClean was entitled to choose whether or not to do so.

“James always becomes a focus of attention around this particularly month so I shouldn’t have been surprised, there’s nothing unusual about that,” he said.

“James is entitled to do what he wants. This is the whole point. It’s entirely his choice and that choice should be respected.”

Despite what he endured early in his Northern Ireland career, O’Neill says there was “a great camaraderie between the Protestants and Catholics in the side”. He says he has many fond memories of his 13-year career with the North with the 1982 World Cup standing out.

“I had wonderful days there, wonderful days,” he said.

“As captain of the side, 1982 is something I could never forget – (beating Spain 1-0 in) Valencia and getting to the quarter-finals of the World Cup was absolutely fantastic

“I forged some great relationships that have lasted all my life with the likes of Norman Whiteside.

“Every time I see him we reminisce about those great days and they were fantastic, he was a big player for us. A young kid coming in from the other (side of the) religious divide but we had a great old spirit, a great camaraderie between the Protestants and Catholics in the side.

“It was very strong. People go their separate ways afterwards but I would defy anyone who participated in that to say that it didn’t exist.

“That’s not to say that we didn’t have different convictions about different things but when we came together for a game it was terrific, it was genuinely terrific. I’ll never forget 1982, it was really great and the night that we beat Spain in Valencia was a major highlight.”

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