Football: A magnificent moodiness: Interview: MARTIN O'NEILL

He could have been manager of Leeds. Now he is one game away from Europe.

There's something about a city whose football team are Wembley bound. A joie de vivre permeates the place and the most unlikely looking citizens ostentatiously declare their allegiance with hats and car stickers.

In Leicester, the Mercury had exhorted its readers to "Wear your blue nose to Wembley". Some executive had even suggested that the players wear them, on their walk from the tunnel which so many professionals imagine themselves making, but which few ever achieve. When that scheme fell, understandably, on stony ground, the alternative suggestion was to request Martin O'Neill to don one for a photograph. The Leicester manager was caught between entering the spirit of the occasion and watching his dignity slip to the floor.

"Do you want to make me look a complete prat?" he asked, with a sardonic smile. A thumbed nose to those who questioned City's right to continued Premiership status after an ominously lacklustre start to the year might have been more apposite.

It has been a perplexing start to 1999 for the normally garrulous Ulsterman, whose post-match analyses have become as subdued, and acquired almost the same gravitas, as confessionals. Indeed, O'Neill would be a Pinnochio not to concede his disquiet that Leicester's third appearance at Wembley in four seasons - one a successful First Division play-off final - has coincided with a League run in which the Foxes were constantly run to ground by their opponents. No wonder that at Selhurst Park last week the atmosphere in the dressing-room after their first League triumph of the year, over Wimbledon, was not so much comic, as consummate, relief.

"I wasn't that concerned for myself," he says. "In this job, I either take reflected glory or I get the boot. I was concerned that players who I thought were really good and could command a place in sides better than us were losing a bit of confidence. That win was monster and to celebrate winning afterwards was fantastic. You should never take afternoons like that for granted, because winning games in the Premiership really is bloody hard work and that's why I get a bit hyped up."

Frankly, O'Neill conceding that he gets "a bit hyped up" is rather like Bill Clinton admitting to being a bit of a ladies' man. Together with the likes of Gordon Strachan and Joe Kinnear, he has become a touchline toreador of the Premiership, his emotional involvement in his team's fortunes occasionally stirring him to hold a red rag to officialdom. The former Nottingham Forest, Norwich and Notts County midfielder does not accept a loss stoically. "As a player, it took me a long time to get over defeats, and as a manager I get moody and irritable. My wife and two daughters say that I am difficult. I don't see that, but maybe I've never seen my faults.

"When I get home I won't want to talk too much about a game we've lost, but they won't go 15 sentences without mentioning it; then we get into an endless argument about who brought it up in the first place!"

"I cannot believe there are managers in the game who don't bring their work home with them although, when you think about what happened to Joe Kinnear recently, maybe it shouldn't be like that. OK, I'm five years younger than Joe, but you have friends who've had heart attacks, and you start thinking, `Hang on, I might be in the same boat somewhere along the way'. But it doesn't really change the way you think, or act."

A match-day programme lies on a restaurant table at Leicester City's training ground, where we talk. By chance, its cover features O'Neill, proudly clutching a Manager of the Month trophy. It was last October that he was flavour of that particular month, one in which there was optimistic talk of Europe followed by Peter Ridsdale, the chairman of Leeds United, expressing a desire to invite O'Neill to become successor to George Graham.

The Leicester chairman Sir Rodney Walker would not relent and O'Neill refused to force the issue. Five months on, in a football parable of our times, Leicester are staving off relegation while Leeds march under David O'Leary, Graham's former No 2, towards Europe.

"I'd have loved to have spoken to Leeds and that opportunity may not come around again but if you're doing well, somebody big will probably cast a glance in your direction; if not, then nobody will want to bother with you anyway. I'm happy for Leeds. They've done brilliantly under David and, funnily enough, I'm actually happy for us because we're just 90 minutes away from qualifying for Europe."

O'Neill's stock on the Managerial Exchange, it must be stressed, has scarcely been affected by the wane in City's Premiership fortunes. His achievements at Wycombe Wanderers and overall record at Filbert Street have seen to that.

Indeed, it was only last month that the 64-times Northern Ireland international was mooted as a possible successor to Glenn Hoddle. He contemplates the notion, then shrewdly shrugs it off in a way that does not close the door to a future invitation. "I'm told my name was being bandied about in FA corridors, and not for having a go at some referee, which was very nice," he says wryly. "I'm sure if they ran out of every other candidate and asked me, I'd give it some consideration."

A Worthington Cup victory against Spurs will only reinforce the universal view of O'Neill as a supreme motivator and tactician, one whose mentor Brian Clough was one of the finest coaches never to get the England call. The question is whether the confidence is sufficiently restored among his men after results which included a 5-0 humbling at Highbury. It would have made many managers question not just their players, but their own acumen. "I wasn't overly concerned because I'm always worried, even when we're winning. Your self-belief does occasionally take a knock and you have to be pretty strong to keep convincing yourself you're doing the right thing. It's happened to far better people than myself. Sometimes Brian Clough, when he couldn't get a result to save his life, used to say `Look, hold on, sometimes the best thing to do is not to do anything and maybe it might mend itself.' He was usually right.

"It is all about confidence. That can be a week-to-week thing; even a minute-to-minute thing, as I never stop telling my players. Look at David Ginola. He is playing on such a wave of confidence he knows that even if he loses the ball four or five times on the trot, the fans will forgive him."

There is no doubt that the Frenchman will explore any fissure of uncertainty in the City rearguard at Wembley. "Every time I have seen Tottenham play recently he has masterminded everything for them," says O'Neill of his fellow BBC France 98 World Cup pundit.

"I've always been a great admirer, ever since we first saw him step inside a couple of players up at Newcastle and lash one into the net. He has the sort of talent which can win matches in a split second. No matter how quiet he might be in a match, you know he's capable of suddenly drifting past two or three players. If he's not working as hard as you'd like, you can maybe get someone else to do the work for him."

He also has a "healthy respect" for his Spurs counterpart. "You always feel that, wherever he is, George Graham will accomplish something," O'Neill says. "But if our confidence is high, we'll go close to beating Tottenham. Why not? They're favourites, but we can beat them. We can play a bit, too."

In midfielders Neil Lennon and Muzzy Izzet, the left-sided wing-back Steve Guppy and striker Emile Heskey, he has a creative force to trouble Sol Campbell and his fellow defenders. There is no dearth of character or experience, either, as epitomised by the 33-year-old Tony Cottee, scorer of Leicester's vital goal in the second leg against Sunderland.

"When we brought him back from Malaysia, Tony was drifting away into oblivion and he arrived here, thankfully, with plenty to prove. The respect he has from the players is immense. We've looked after him, given him the occasional day off and he's probably a better all-round player now than he's ever been. He's played more games than either he, or I, thought he would this season."

Particularly with his recent pounds 2m purchase the Icelander Arnar Gunnlaugsson cup-tied, just one more drop squeezed out of that well-squeezed reservoir of goals next Sunday will suit O'Neill very nicely.

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