Football: High honour of O'Neill

'Wasn't it Mark Antony who said Brutus was an honourable man? And look what happened to him'; Nick Townsend talks to Leicester's leader about the move that wasn't
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The Independent Online
HONOURABLE is not a word that appears frequently on every manager's Scrabble board. So, when, all of a sudden, a shaft of integrity illuminates an otherwise cynical, sometimes murky, world, it is almost inevitable that the man bearing that torch, Martin O'Neill, should be venerated as some kind of patron saint of the men in the dug-out. And never mind that he has paid such a heavy price for his martyrdom.

"Ah, that O'Neill," we commentators are apt to react, somewhat patronisingly. "You can count on him to do the decent thing," which is precisely what his chairman John Elsom and his PLC counterpart Sir Rodney Walker evidently counted upon when they refused to countenance him at least hearing what Leeds United had to say about his future and, in effect, all but manacled him to Filbert Street. Or should that be Newgate Street?

It is Friday morning after training, and the Leicester manager, who, only two days previously had promised that "you won't get another peep out of me" on the issue that has dominated most of his waking hours and several of his sleeping ones, considers the cloak of probity thrust upon him one which rests uneasily on his shoulders. "Wasn't it Mark Antony who said Brutus was an honourable man? And look what happened to him," retorted the man from Derry.

"I am not a paragon: ask anyone within my own household. I have to say I was sleeping uneasily on the whole thing and anybody around me will tell you that I haven't looked that clever recently, amazingly for something that was always going to be to my benefit. But, heh, listen..." he suddenly snaps back into practical mode, " could be a lot worse. I could be out of a job."

The fact that he could, and others of his ilk definitely will be season's end, has been his prime motivation in a fortnight in which Leicester City, by dint of the fans' emotional blackmail and the board's downright intransigence, have kept their man even if the latter have scarcely retained their credibility. They have known since they first employed him nearly three years ago and certainly since Leeds chairman Peter Ridsdale first indicated that the Foxes man was his quarry that principle is crucial to O'Neill's philosophy. Yet he is as aware as anyone that football contracts can become in effect null and void if they don't carry a manager or player's heart and soul along with his signature.

"I have to say the only contract I ever broke as a player was generally because I was crap, and they were getting rid of me, like Clough and Taylor. As a player at Forest I signed five one-year contracts and ended up staying 10 years. I only signed one contract at Wycombe longer than a year, but it didn't matter. I ended up staying."

How long he remains at Filbert Street remains to be seen. What happens the next time a club with greater financial clout and championship potential begins to snuffle around O'Neill like a pig after truffles? He has yet to look at, let alone sign, a new contract reportedly worth pounds 2m which would bind him to the club until 2002 although this time it would include an escape clause, a subject over which there has been so much discourse this time. We shall never really know the truth about that "gentleman's agreement".

"There were only two people in the meeting, apart from me. Sir Rodney said he didn't remember it being said, then said there had been a misinterpretation: John also said there had been a misinterpretation but I know my own one," O'Neill says pointedly. "OK, that's fine. I was probably on dodgy ground, but legally, and probably under European rules, I think I had the right to go and speak to somebody, but I did not want to do that because then it becomes messy. I honestly thought that John would give me permission to talk to Leeds, but he steadfastly refused to do so.

"The League Managers' Association might have come into help but there is a code of conduct and I did not want to ignore that, because everybody will suffer - the managers further down the list, those in Division Two or Three battling away to get compensation when they've been booted out. And I tell you what, sure as God, I'll probably be back there myself.

"If you sign a contract it's got to be worth something. You sign it in good faith, because if something happens you know it is a safeguard for you. That's the security we all have. You can't have it both ways."

Many will congratulate O'Neill for an enlightened approach: yet the reality is that Leicester, in almost feudal manner, have denied him the opportunity of advancing his own career which might have been acceptable when City were formed in 1884, but is surely not as we approach the Millennium. Leeds, who through no fault of their own, have lost their manager to predatory forces, have been prevented from recruiting within the Premiership and may now have an unproven manager in David O'Leary, who was at first ignored as a potential successor to George Graham, and who has himself consistently expressed doubts about the job. What a way for the national sport to administer itself.

It is all very well erecting artificial barriers and preventing chairmen poaching their rivals' managers, but once one is sacked - in this case Christian Gross by Tottenham - it begins a sequence of events less like a merry-go-round, more like dodgem cars. It leaves an upwardly mobile manager like O'Neill, who knows it will be a struggle to hold on to the likes of Emile Heskey, Muzzy Izzet and Neil Lennon, to use his own expression, "rankled". The manager adds: "The opportunity to manage an historically big club may never come round again and as my old mentor Brian Clough used to say, 'The only inevitability in this job is that you will get the sack.' I should certainly look at that new contract, if not sign it immediately. If we lose against Aston Villa, lose against Charlton and lose against Liverpool, I'd say that contract might not be there to sign."