FOOTBALL: O'Neill's talking is done on the pitch

Leicester manager is frustrated by the boardroom row that threatens the club's future.
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The Independent Online
WE HAVE been talking in his office for half an hour and the words are tumbling out of Martin O'Neill like ferrets bounding from a sack, but now he pauses and, very carefully, says: "At this minute I'd rather not answer that."

It takes a lot to silence the Leicester City manager but the impending, crucial Emergency General Meeting of the club's plc has, for the moment, done the trick.

The meeting, at Donington Park on Wednesday, should finally settle a boardroom dispute that has riven the club since September. O'Neill is widely believed to back John Elsom, the football club chairman, and Sir Rodney Walker, the plc chairman, against their fellow directors, the so- called Gang of Four led by the chief executive, Barrie Pierpoint. O'Neill's thoughts on the commercialisation of the game - "I feel the man in the street has been pushed aside for the corporate fan" - tend to lend credence to that assessment of where the manager's support lies, but for the moment he prefers not to further inflame a bitter dispute.

Instead he is concentrating, with great success, on matters on the pitch. However, he is very aware that the identity of today's visitors could not be more appropriate. Derby County represent both the best and worst case futures for O'Neill. Their stadium, Pride Park, shows what can be done; their form, in the bottom three, shows what must be avoided.

"A new stadium is essential to the well-being of the club and regardless of how the boardroom struggle is resolved, whoever gets in should make that the absolute priority," he said. "We have missed a couple of deadlines, there have been a couple of objections, and the stadium we were hoping to be in by August 2000 looks more like being ready in August 2002.

"Every time we start to do okay, people talk unrealistically about European football. Let's be realistic. We average [gates of] under 20,000; to give yourself a chance you have to average 35,000 or more and we are the only club in the top half of the table - bar West Ham - averaging below 30,000. In that aspect the club is under-achieving, having been in the top 10 for three years.

"We are a similar size to Derby and when they moved their gates automatically went from 18,000 to 29,000. Whether you keep them depends on success but it helps to attract new players, too. Derby, regardless of their present predicament in the league, can and have attracted players because of Pride Park."

Derby were promoted along with Leicester in 1996 and, like O'Neill's side, survived and appeared to be prospering. Yet while Leicester are seventh this morning, the Rams are in the relegation zone.

"People say that if you go up the first year is the hardest, which it is, but people then say you are an `established club'," O'Neill said. "That's nonsense, far bigger clubs than ourselves have found themselves in deep trouble. They [this is not meant as a reference to Derby] might have had that attitude - they were looking at top five or six. They lose a few, they take their eye off the ball and, if you do that, you will be in trouble.

"The Premiership may not be everybody's cup of tea but it is extremely demanding, you must look game-by-game because if you lose a spate of them you are in trouble. That is why I think Leicester are fortunate to have me here because that is how I see it.

"I thought this would be the most difficult season. The new stadium is delayed and there is a lack of stability. That is why I have been so pleased with the effort of the players on the pitch - that is where the football club does its talking."

They have done so as loquaciously as their manager. Last week they advanced to the last eight of the Worthington Cup at the expense of the Premiership leaders, Leeds; this week they hope to progress to the fourth round of the FA Cup after a home replay against Hereford. They also have two players, Emile Heskey and Steve Guppy, in the England squad. It is impressive going considering that the pounds 3m signing of Darren Eadie, who should make his debut today, represents the lowest club record fee in the Premiership's top 15.

That underlines how much has changed since O'Neill's playing days when a similarly sized provincial club from the Midlands not only paid the first pounds 1m transfer fee in England, but also carried off two European Champions' Cups.

O'Neill and his assistant, John Robertson, played in that Nottingham Forest team under Brian Clough. His relationship with Clough was ambivalent at best and there were no phone calls either seeking or offering advice when O'Neill became a manager. The pair are closer now and O'Neill does a passable Clough impression when he says, nasally, that Clough would have only said: "Go on, son; do it the way you see fit."

"He had great charisma," adds O'Neill. "He was a terrific manager, though I did not always appreciate it at the time. I was always trying to be in the side despite him, instead of because of him. He used to dish out fantastic praise to Robertson, then not be so clever to me.

"He came to see me and John before the Coca-Cola Cup final. We had a nice morning. Then he was not all that clever for some time, so John and I went to see him. I'm delighted to say he has made really good progress and he came to see us a few months ago.

"He sat in that chair and said himself that the chances of a provincial club winning the Champions' League were mighty thin. It was still a magnificent feat for Nottingham Forest to do it twice but at that stage we were able to attract the likes of Peter Shilton, and pay him as well as any team in the country, and be the first to pay pounds 1m for Trevor Francis."

O'Neill treasures the triumphs. He missed the first final through injury but drew rare praise from Clough in the second, but was happier at Norwich where he was given his head in central midfield instead of shuttling up and down the right flank. There were times, he admitted, when he envied Robertson, who enjoyed "the ideal scenario, being the focal point of an absolutely brilliant side".

When his knee went, and after a string of rejections (only Bradford and Lincoln even gave him an interview) he moved into management, first at Grantham in the Beazer Homes Midland Division, then with Wycombe Wanderers.

Having taken them from non-League to the Second Division he returned to Norwich, lasting six months before falling out with Robert Chase. His resignation was the catalyst for the unpopular chairman's eventual removal but his sense of guilt contributed to a bad start at Leicester, though he still feels, with some justification, that the vilification he got within the first three months was unjustified.

In the event he won promotion and there are few in Leicester who would admit to being a former critic. Indeed, it is his popularity that is likely to tilt the balance at the EGM.

"Whatever happens it will be a relief for it to be over," O'Neill said. "The players have asked how things are going, especially where it involves them in a peripheral way, but overall they get on with it. I think there are only two things players are concerned about - whether they are picked and whether they are paid. But I must divorce them from it. If we were not winning matches it would be absolutely shambolic everywhere."