Jimmy O'Neill was the sort of goalkeeper that football fans love to watch. Whether plunging acrobatically to repel shots on his line or springing skywards to pluck crosses from the heads of rampaging centre-forwards, the slim, almost willowy Republic of Ireland international was a natural crowd-pleaser. He was no giant, standing two inches short of 6ft, but he was blessed with long, almost spidery arms, and when he was at the top of his form his grasp appeared practically prehensile as he snatched high-velocity missiles from the air with consummate, near-infallible ease.
Like every net-minder ever born, he dropped the occasional clanger, and once in a while his confidence appeared to wilt. But few followers of Everton in the 1950s or Stoke City in the early 1960s, when the Potters' "Old Crocks" an inspired amalgam of veterans illuminated by the incomparable Stanley Matthews rose to the top flight as Second Division champions, had cause to complain about the Dubliner's contribution.
O'Neill, the son of the accomplished professional golfer Moses O'Neill, was adept at all ball games as a youngster, but exhibited most exceptional promise as a goalkeeper, first with his local club Buffin United, then in his country's schoolboy side. It was while excelling in a youth international at Brentford that he was spotted by Everton, with whom he turned professional in May 1949. At the time, the Toffees were searching for a long-term replacement for the revered oldster Ted Sagar, who was finally approaching the end of his magnificent career.
There was no shortage of candidates, with such as George Burnett, Harry Leyland and Albert Dunlop all in the frame, but it was O'Neill who picked up the gauntlet most convincingly. He made his senior dbut at Middlesbrough as an 18-year-old in August 1950, and despite being beaten four times in a crushing defeat, he was retained for a run of 10 games in which he revealed immense raw talent, though clearly he was not quite ready to become the last line of defence in what was, frankly, a poor side.
Thus the 40-year-old Sagar was recalled, but could do nothing to prevent relegation to the Second Division, where O'Neill received another extended opportunity in 1951/52. He made the most of it and missed only a handful of outings when Cliff Britton's improving team secured promotion back to the top flight in the spring of 1954.
By then he had begun to make an impact at international level, too, though he took little pleasure in remembering his first full outing for the Republic, against Spain in Madrid in June 1952. Ireland were hammered 6-0 and were two down before the dbutant touched the ball, other than to pick it out of the net. He wasn't to blame, though, finding himself horribly exposed by a porous defence, and he was picked for the next match, going on to win 17 caps before being ousted at the end of the decade.
Back on the domestic front, for two seasons he helped Everton to consolidate as a worthy but uninspiring mid-table member of the top tier before he was supplanted as first-choice goalkeeper by the locally born Dunlop, a colourful scallywag whom O'Neill considered to be an inferior performer.
Thereafter the Irishman's chances to impress at Goodison were limited to occasional outings as Dunlop's deputy, and it was ironic that one of his finest displays came in a home annihilation by Arsenal in 1958. That autumn day he was blameless for all six Gunners goals and single-handedly saved the Toffees from further humiliation with a succession of sensational saves.
Clearly it was an unsatisfactory situation for the still-ambitious O'Neill, who clashed with the new manager Johnny Carey over what he perceived as unfair treatment. In July 1960, Tony Waddington, the new manager of Second Division Stoke City, offered 5,000 to sign the unsettled 28-year-old custodian, and Everton accepted.
Waddington had a vision of reviving the hitherto mediocre Potters, using mainly footballers of proven quality who were seen by less canny observers as being past their best. O'Neill was his first capture and before long he added a string of ageing diamonds who hadn't lost their lustre, the likes of Jackie Mudie from Blackpool, Manchester United's Dennis Viollet, Jimmy McIlroy of Burnley, Eddie Clamp and Eddie Stuart from Wolves and, crucially, Blackpool's former Stoke idol Stanley Matthews, who wasn't far off 50 but had still been dancing down the right touchline at Bloomfield Road like a frisky young colt.
The upshot was promotion as table-toppers in 1962/63, with O'Neill playing in all 42 League games, proving a stabilising influence on the men in front of him and performing superbly in some of the key encounters such as the narrow springtime victories over their nearest rivals, Chelsea and Sunderland.
At the start of the following campaign, O'Neill was still short of his 32nd birthday, no age for a goalkeeper, and had realistic expectations of a lengthy Indian summer back in the top grade. However, Waddington had other ideas, replacing him first with the much younger Bobby Irvine and then with the Scottish international Lawrie Leslie. Believing that he was a better goalkeeper than either of them, O'Neill became unsettled and declared himself unwilling to accept third-team football. Accordingly, in March 1964 he joined Fourth Division Darlington, remaining at Feethams for a year, then completing his senior career with Port Vale.
After leaving the Football League, in which he had played more than 400 games for his four clubs, O'Neill put in a brief spell with Cork Celtic before laying aside his gloves in 1968 to run a taxi business in Ormskirk, Lancashire.
Ivan PontingReuse content