GAA Football

Martin O'Neill on being pulled out of Championship game and how Brian Clough ended his designs on law

Martin O'Neill looked on his career with Jack Devaney

FORMER Celtic and Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill has revealed he had not one, but two run-ins with Antrim GAA in his youth – and quipped he would do his damnedest to wreck the 50th anniversary celebrations of MacRory and Hogan Cup double winners St Mary’s later this month.

Speaking at a special webinar, hosted by Queen’s GAA Past Members Union to commemorate the lifting of the GAA ban on foreign sports in 1971, O’Neill reflected on his GAA career and his attempts to resume his law degree at Nottingham Forest.

Co-hosted by Queen’s members Jack Devaney and Donal McAnallen, O’Neill also said he wasn’t quite ready to retreat into his “cave” in terms of working in football again after leaving the Nottingham Forest post in 2019.

He recalled the period Antrim GAA barred 1971 MacRory Cup semi-final opponents St Malachy’s and St Mary’s from playing at Casement Park because the Kilrea youngster was playing soccer for Irish League club Distillery at the time.

While the disappointment still lingers with him at not getting the chance to play the game at Casement Park (it was moved to Omagh), O’Neill cited an earlier time when he was pulled out of a Derry minor championship match for fear of a protest from opponents Antrim in 1970.

“Listen, this is not to be down on the GAA – far from it,” he said in conversation with Jack Devaney.

“I think it’s a fantastic organisation. It is one of the great games. I took my two daughters to the All-Ireland final some years ago between Armagh and Tyrone and they were absolutely and utterly blown away by the whole pageantry and everything about it…

“I’m more local in this instance because my annoyance was with the Antrim GAA as much as anything else. I was playing for Derry minors and we were in the dressing room about to play Antrim in a championship match. And there’s a knock on the door – we were actually getting changed for the game and an Antrim official came in and said: ‘If O’Neill plays this match we’re going to protest.’

“This was a different protestation [to the MacRory Cup semi-final] because this was to do with the fact that when I’d moved up to Belfast - I was naturally playing for own club Kilrea - but not realising that I had to sign a document as I ended up playing with a group of St Malachy’s players in the fifth division of the Antrim league for a team called St Columbus who played three or four miles outside Belfast.

“Because I’d played for them but hadn’t signed some sort of document I was therefore ineligible to play in this game.”

He added: “Of course, it came as a big shock as I was actually pulled out of the game. Thankfully Derry won the match and my first proper game for Derry that year was actually the All-Ireland semi-final rather than the Ulster final that was played at Casement.”

Upon being told by Devaney the St Mary’s team of ’71 that knocked them out of the MacRory Cup were holding their 50th anniversary celebrations later this month, O’Neill joked: “To heck with those St Mary’s boys who went on to win the Hogan and spawned my real jealousy. They’re having a reunion? I must get an opportunity to wreck it!

“I go back to how strong St Mary’s were and I think Frank Toman, who’d been with my brother Gerry, successfully trained St Colman’s, Frank decided to go up to St Mary’s.

“They didn’t need any more strengthening on their side. But it still rankles to this day as does the Hogan final the previous year for totally different reasons.”

O’Neill had just started a Law degree at Queen’s when he signed for Nottingham Forest. A couple of years later, he’d considered resuming his studies.

“I’d only started out when the [Nottingham Forest] opportunity came in October time in 1971,” he explained.

“I went to the head of the Law Department and asked him if things didn’t work out could I come back and he said yes.

“At Forest, I scored on my debut and I scored at Old Trafford within two months against George Best’s Manchester United who were leading the league that year, and I thought: ‘This is a really easy game,’ and suddenly you hit a bad spell which lasts a couple of seasons and you think: have you made the right decision here?

“But with a bit of determination I tried to make the grade. Around 1974 I thought about doing an external [degree]. I went to Nottingham University and they were trying to manage my tutorials around my training in the morning with Nottingham Forest. And then along comes Brian Clough to the football club and put extra demands on players and that idea disappeared. We didn’t realise it at the time but it was great news for all of us.”

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