Football: O'Neil back with a touch of German steel
Phil Gordon explains how the Bundesliga has rebuilt a career
Sunday 25 April 1999
The former Celtic man has only to jump in his car and drive an hour- and-a-half up the motorway to get back on the road to fulfilling the glittering career once mapped out for him. When the Scots touch down on Monday in Bremen, O'Neil, recalled to the squad after a three-year absence, will be there waiting for them.
The 26-year-old spends so much time on the autobahns these days, that life can often have the monotony of a Kraftwerk record, but the Vfl Wolfsburg central defender is not complaining. "Away games in the Bundesliga can mean seven-hour road trips," he said. "However, the buses are like a hotel, which is just as well, for we live in them at times."
Wolfsburg have been the success story of the Bundesliga. The provincial club could be involved in Europe next season, and such has been the Scot's contribution Brown could not ignore the player whose tears he wiped away as a heartbroken schoolboy.
Wolsburg's ascent has been so rapid that, for an adequate comparison, imagine Dagenham reaching the Champions' League. The club which started out life as the works team for Volkswagen, were playing in the fourth division in front of 600 fans just seven years ago. Now 20,000 pack in to see which aristocratic noses will be the latest to be bloodied.
"We're in fifth place," said O'Neil proudly, "and Germany will have four teams in the Champions' League. It would be unbelievable for this club, especially when you consider there are big teams like Hamburg, Stuttgart and Werder Bremen all behind us."
Just as incredible would be O'Neil's return to the limelight. He came to the German backwater to rebuild his career after several wrong turnings. Three years ago, O'Neil was carving out a name for himself with Celtic. His successful conversion from midfield to defence - in a Celtic rearguard which conceded only 23 league goals and went eight months unebeaten - was recognised by Brown who gave him his first cap, against Australia, in the build-up to Euro 96. But a knee injury intervened. Then a costly mistake which allowed Brian Laudrup to score the winner in a key match with Rangers meant he was unable to restore his image with the criticial Parkhead support.
O'Neil then did well enough on loan at Nottingham Forest to set up a transfer, until relegation from the Premiership pulled the plug on the deal. Instead, O'Neil moved to Aberdeen but after an unhappy season there, jumped at the chance of going to Germany when Wolfsburg paid pounds 750,000.
His progress has not gone unnoticed by Brown, who receives weekly tapes of Bundesliga action. "Brian has a different role to the one he had here," says the Scotland coach. "He is a marker of the type we don't have in British football." Given the shakiness of Scotland's defence recently, particularly Matt Elliott, O'Neil could get the chance to stake his claim in Bremen when Oliver Bierhoff of Milan and Bayern Munich's Carsten Jancker could be on the bill.
The Germans, not surprisingly, are demanding employers. "If my man doesn't score, I've had a good game," said O'Neil. "If he does, well . . . the coach or the newspapers don't miss you." Brown, though, feels that a touch of vorsprung durch technik was exactly what was needed in O'Neil's game.
Coach and player go back a long way. To the summer of '89, when O'Neil was the captain of the Scotland Under-16 side, coached by Brown, who reached the World Cup final. O'Neil, who had missed a penalty against Saudi Arabia, then missed the decisive one in the shootout, to break his own young heart and 51,000 others inside Hampden Park.
"I don't want this to be a one-off," he said. "I want Craig Brown to know that I'd like to be in his plans long-term. I am not a kid any more and I have grown up a lot. At Celtic, maybe I was a bit too nice for my own good but now I've added aggression to my game."
Like another Scot before him, Paul Lambert, who was turned into a Champions' League winner by Borussia Dortmund, O'Neil is finding that the Germans demand a high price for efficiency. "I am away from home a lot which means it is tough for my wife Lisa, who has to look after our daughter, Kristie, on her own."
That itinerary could be added to, if Wolsburg reach their European destination, with the Scot musing: "Volkswagen give us massive backing, and there are even plans to build a new stadium. If we got into the Champions' League, it would be good for their image. I wish I had made this move years ago."
If only everything in football was as reliable as a club supported by Volkswagen.
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