England would be ultimate test of O'Neill's passion for football

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The Independent Online

Martin O'Neill's status as the apparent favourite among the Football Association's power brokers to succeed Sven Goran Eriksson is rooted in his consistent track record of turning limited resources into something greater than the sum of their parts.

By doing that so spectacularly at Wycombe Wanderers, Leicester City and Celtic, three clubs operating in vastly different strata, with vastly different objectives, the 53-year-old Ulsterman has proved to be capable, flexible and ambitious, and made himself one of most sought-after coaches in the British game.

Rarely does a major vacancy arise with which he is not immediately linked. Indeed, he is the bookmakers' current simultaneous favourite to be the next manager of England, Newcastle United and Manchester United.

The unknown factor in the England situation is his immediate availability for work. He left Celtic last year for personal reasons, to care for his wife, Geraldine, in her fight against cancer.

While he has made it known that he wants to return to management, and has indicated privately that he would welcome consideration by the FA, there has been no explicit statement about when he might be ready to start.

On the assumption that that situation is not a bar to taking up a new post this summer, the FA feels he is a serious candidate.

His three long-term managerial jobs to date have each lasted five years. He took over at Wycombe in August 1990, guiding them from the Conference to the Third Division in 1993, and then up into the Second Division in 1994.

He left for Norwich in 1995, but stayed for only 20 games before resigning on a matter of principle because he felt that the then chairman, Robert Chase, had not fulfilled his promises on funding for transfers.

In almost five years at Leicester, between December 1995 and June 2000, he transformed them, winning promotion to the Premiership via the play-offs in his first season, and then establishing them as a top-flight club. They also punched way above their weight to win the League Cup twice in his reign, in 1997 and 2000.

If his team's style of play was not exactly total football then he at least fashioned what was available into a winning unit. Even if he could not always deliver it, he aspired to passing football. He favoured wingers, like Steve Guppy, supplemented in midfield by hard-working scufflers in the shape of Robbie Savage and Neil Lennon.

More importantly, when considering his credentials as an England manager, he fostered good team spirit. And in the manner of one of his mentors, Brian Clough, under whom he thrived, if not always harmoniously, at Nottingham Forest, he had a knack of making average players good, and good players better.

At Leicester he demonstrated his ability to identify players who had underachieved, and improve them. He took Muzzy Izzet from Chelsea's reserves and made him a key component. He revived the fortunes of Savage - rejected by Manchester United and acquired by O'Neill from Crewe. Lennon's career also changed platform at Crewe on a journey from Manchester City to Leicester. Lennon later joined O'Neill at Celtic, while O'Neill was also instrumental in Emile Heskey's development into an England player. Chris Sutton was rescued from Chelsea and turned into a Celtic mainstay.

At Celtic, O'Neill's major achievement, aside from putting seven trophies in the cabinet in five years, was ending a period of Rangers dominance in the Old Firm battle for Glasgow supremacy. Yes, he was blessed with the phenomenal talent of Henrik Larsson, but Larsson alone did not propel Celtic to the Uefa Cup final of 2003, when O'Neill's tactical nous helped to oust both Blackburn and Liverpool before last-gasp defeat to Jose Mourinho's Porto.

If there is a downside to O'Neill's candidature, it might be that he is not afraid to be withering, or even disdainful, of the press, or indeed his employers. "Obviously the chairman has Alzheimer's", was his biting assessment of the Leicester boardroom when a gentlemen's agreement was not honoured in 1998 to allow him to speak to Leeds, who were interested in him.

Yet such a stance could also be an asset. An England manager will always need thick skin and an ability to cope withcriticism.

O'Neill would also bring a day-to-day passion that has rarely, if ever, been seen under Eriksson. At Leicester, the first part of the grass that needed treatment in any given season was around the technical area, where O'Neill would pace and gesture maniacally. And it was not simply Keegan-esque arm-waving, but the actions of a man who not only cared but had the tactical and technical abilities as a coach and manager to turning caring into results.