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 Posted by ESPN Staff
Aug 4, 2006

O'Neill's back in business

Twenty years ago Martin O'Neill was selling insurance - now Aston Villa are entrusting him with producing the right policy to lead the midlands club out of the doldrums.

O'Neill has ended his 15-month exile from football - to look after his ill wife Geraldine - by becoming David O'Leary's successor.

It is a massive challenge for O'Neill, who has little time to bring in new faces before the new Premiership season gets underway in just over two weeks' time with a trip to Arsenal.

But he will thrive on trying to lead Villa back to at least the level they enjoyed in the late 1990s, when a top-six place and regular European football was the norm.

It has been a long road since double European Cup winner O'Neill cut his managerial teeth via two seasons in the Beazer Homes League with Grantham Town.

The former Northern Ireland skipper took the route that most of today's top flight multi-millionaire players would turn their nose up at and earned £100 a week with Grantham.

But such experience - and that gained as a player at Nottingham Forest under the legendary Brian Clough - has stood O'Neill in good stead during the past two decades via success at Wycombe, Norwich, Leicester and Celtic.

O'Neill has been the overwhelming choice of Villa fans to replace O'Leary and he will bring a passion to the job that many supporters perceived to be lacking in his predecessor - just witness his manic gesticulating on the touchlines.

Ellis - or any consortium which may replace him - will also find out O'Neill is very much his own man.

He has stood his ground with managers and chairmen if he believes himself to be right, and is not afraid to walk away should his demands not be met.

Even supporters have found themselves personally on the end of O'Neill's wrath.

He was given a particularly rough time from the terraces during his early days at Leicester but kept the letters from fans in his desk.

He then made a point of ringing them all back personally to ask their opinion of him when better times arrived for the Foxes.

But it is this wearing of the heart on his sleeve with which he has endeared himself to supporters throughout his career.

The 54-year-old is not your archetypal football manager, wrapped up in the game and nothing else.

He studied for a degree in law and remains fascinated by criminology - attending some of Britain's most famous trials, including the Yorkshire Ripper and Black Panther cases.

O'Neill started his sporting career playing Gaelic football before swapping codes and winning the Irish Cup with Distillery in 1971, with the reward of a European tie against Barcelona.

He moved to Forest later that year but his career only really took off with the arrival of Clough four years later.

He went on to play a pivotal part in the winning of the League Championship in 1978 and the European Cup in 1979 and 1980 but, after 371 appearances and 62 goals, O'Neill left the City Ground after being asked to play on the left of midfield when he preferred operating in the centre.

He would never again taste the same levels of success as a player at domestic level, although he skippered Northern Ireland to their greatest achievement - at least until overcoming England last September - in defeating Spain during the 1982 World Cup finals.

Spells at Norwich (twice), Manchester City, Notts County, Chesterfield and Fulham followed before a knee injury forced O'Neill to hang up his boots in February 1985.

There was no quick transition to the other side of the footballing fence, though, and it was then that O'Neill earned a living selling insurance.

It was two-and-a-half years before he was enticed back into the game by Grantham chairman Tony Balfe for the start of the 1987-88 campaign and brought in ex-professionals such as Alan Kennedy, Terry Curran and John Robertson.

While World Cups and European Cup wins were soon to be on O'Neill's agenda, it was the Evans Halshaw Floodlit Cup in which he reached his first final as a manager, losing to Alfreton Town.

A disagreement over the players' budget for the following season saw O'Neill leave Grantham in the summer of 1989 and a two-month spell with Shepshed Charterhouse was the forerunner to his breakthrough into the Football League with Wycombe.

They were a Conference club when O'Neill began his five-year reign in February 1990 but, after two FA Trophy triumphs, promotion was gained in 1993 - and 12 months later Wycombe were elevated to Division Two.

With his reputation now flourishing, Norwich enticed O'Neill back to Carrow Road in the summer of 1995 but his determination to stand up for his beliefs saw him leave in the December after a disagreement with chairman Robert Chase over team funding.

The Canaries loss was Leicester's gain. Within a week he was installed at Filbert Street, and the most successful spell in the club's history was about to unfold under his charge.

O'Neill did not hit it off immediately with the club's supporters but promotion to the Premiership was gained via Steve Claridge's play-off final winner against Crystal Palace.

The Foxes went on to win two League Cups, secure four successive top-10 league finishes and participate twice in the UEFA Cup.

O'Neill managed to harness the raw talent of Emile Heskey to players hungry to make their mark in the top flight such as Robbie Savage, Muzzy Izzet and Neil Lennon, who bossed many a midfield battle, while Steve Walsh was the inspirational captain.

By now O'Neill was being linked with many leading jobs, including Manchester United and Tottenham. He actually held talks with Leeds but stayed at Leicester after thousands of fans turned up with 'Please Don't Go Martin' cards at the next home game.

But if there was one job which would lure him away it was Celtic. As a 14-year-old he had touched the European Cup and met Jock Stein during a tour of supporters' clubs by the famous Lisbon Lions.

His chance came after the departure of John Barnes in February 2000, although it was not until the following summer that O'Neill took over at The Hoops, with current England Under-21 boss Peter Taylor moving to Leicester as his replacement.

O'Neill was faced with reviving a club which had an inferiority complex from being in the shadows of Rangers but his success rate was phenomenal.

Celtic won the league title in 2001 and 2002, reached the UEFA Cup final in 2003 and completed the league and cup domestic double in 2004.

O'Neill could do no wrong, but in May 2005 he decided to quit football to look after his wife, who is battling bravely against cancer, and Gordon Strachan was handed the reins at Parkhead.

Such matters put football into perspective and many wondered whether O'Neill would return to the game but now Villa are beckoning - starting with the pre-season tour of Germany and Holland this weekend.