Football / FA Cup Countdown: O'Neill bears the mark of his mentor: Wycombe await the visit of West Bromwich with due cause for optimism. Trevor Haylett reports

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The Independent Online
THEY ARE Wycombe Wanderers and they have been Wycombe Wanderers for more than 100 years, but never has there been a better time for the Buckinghamshire club to incorporate the full title of their home town. High Wycombe Wanderers would seem an entirely appropriate handle, both from their status as the country's leading non-league side and their well-being in advance of Sunday's FA Cup second- round tie with West Bromwich Albion.

With 14 wins from 19 games and a lead of 13 points, Wycombe are flying high at the front of the GM Vauxhall Conference. Even at this early stage they look unlikely to be caught, though it is not a suggestion they will entertain until the last ball has been kicked on the last day of the season. Bitter experience has taught the danger of counting embryonic chickens.

On the final afternoon of last season, Wycombe gained a 4-0 victory over Witton Albion which took them to 94 points, a Conference record and 21 points clear of their closest pursuers. Unfortunately for the manager, Martin O'Neill, the former Nottingham Forest and Northern Ireland midfield player, Colchester were at the same time beating Barrow 5-0 also to reach 94 points - and their goal difference was superior.

Colchester went up to the Football League and Wycombe stood still to begin the chase all over again. With so big a prize at stake, the narrowness of failure was heart-breaking. To make matters worse, the rumour factory then persuaded them that the back door into the professional ranks could yet be open as Aldershot, and then Maidstone, fell by the wayside.

'At the Conference annual meeting in June they announced that the fixtures for the entire Pyramid system for the new season were on hold for three weeks while they looked into the situation,' O'Neill said. 'People were coming up and congratulating us on our promotion. I've learned to take nothing for granted in this game until it's signed and sealed but even I was beginning to believe. Then to be denied once more when the League refused to sanction another place was as disappointing as missing out on the last day.'

It was as big a blow to this young manager of fierce ambition and impatient determination to test his skills higher up the ladder as for any of his team. 'There were tears in the dressing-room after the Witton game. The players had given their all. We had chased Colchester all the way, recovered an 11-point deficit and ended the season winning 12 of our last 14 fixtures with only one defeat. And it still was not enough.

'Gathering everybody back for the first day's training was pretty harrowing. I remember thinking to myself 'Christ Almighty, what have we to do to get out of this league?' But we did well in our warm-up games and on the opening day battled for a point at Macclesfield.

'Psychologically, that was important because it was where we had suffered our only defeat in our late run, and where ultimately the championship had been decided. It restored confidence, which may sound Irish because we were so far ahead of third place, but inevitably there were doubts about our ability to do it again.'

There will be no shortage of confidence in either camp on Sunday at the smart Adams Park stadium, with Osvaldo Ardiles' West Bromwich themselves moving sweetly along near the top of the Second Division. O'Neill and Forest provided the opposition on an August afternoon in 1978 when the Argentinian made his debut for Tottenham, an occasion the Irishman well remembers because not only was he the Forest scorer in a 1-1 draw, but also because of his problems with a certain Brian Clough.

The manager and his right-sided midfielder were hardly on kissing terms at the time; the previous weekend O'Neill scored twice in Forest's 5-0 drubbing of Ipswich in the Charity Shield at Wembley, only to be substituted.

'It was Cloughie's way of putting me down because he thought I was too arrogant. Having crossed the managerial divide myself, I now realise how much I must have got on his nerves.'

There was a clash of strong personalities, though understandably O'Neill is appreciative of the opportunity he had to work under the man at the height of his powers. He disagrees with recent criticism of Clough for the ease of his training regime, though he does believe that with the passing of time the mercurial one has become more lenient.

'There was a game last season when a couple of the Forest lads went out wearing gloves and that would never have been allowed in my day. Pre-season training with him was not as hard as I found elsewhere, but despite that I was every bit as tired at the start of the season as I had been at Forest. My players will tell you the work here is less physically demanding than at most clubs, yet I don't see us being outgunned in the last 15 minutes. Cloughie's belief was that if you are physically fresh you'll be mentally tuned in and I don't think he's far wrong.'

Winners' medals were plentiful in the O'Neill household as European Cup, League Championship and League Cup trophies followed each other to the City Ground. International football had its own rewards as he captained Northern Ireland to a place in the World Cup quarter-finals in Spain in 1982. Yet it was not until O'Neill moved to Norwich that he encountered the sheer joy of playing the game.

'I loved the lifestyle it gave me and the opportunity to see the world, but at Forest there were so many big pressure games you couldn't always enjoy the 90 minutes as much as I would have liked.'

Managing is a different kind of enjoyment, a role for which O'Neill, with his natural charm and resolute single-minded approach, appears ideally suited. 'Mick Channon would always answer 'good players' when asked what made a good manager and a lot of the time I agreed with him. Now I would say that good managers can make very good players. You have to lift them up, and can't afford to show how down you may be feeling inside and for someone like me who wears his heart on his sleeve, that's difficult. Likewise, if I'm ecstatic about a victory I do tend to go overboard.'

He will indeed be ecstatic on Sunday if Wycombe scale the peaks of an FA Cup giant-killing. But not as ecstatic as he will be come May, should the Conference championship trophy be installed in his boardroom.

(Photograph omitted)

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