The whiff of history repeating itself is always in the air when the World Cup comes around and the Three Lions add fresh heartaches to 40 years of hurt. When Martin O'Neill went public yesterday about his failed attempt to succeed Sven Goran Eriksson as England manager, it was impossible to hear him speak without recalling Brian Clough's bid to fill the void after Don Revie's departure.
Clough, O'Neill's manager at Nottingham Forest when he was summoned to Lancaster Gate for an interview in 1977, was rejected by the Football Association hierarchy. Going on to land the European Cup in successive seasons, he became popularly known, amongst other, often unrepeatable things, as the Greatest Manager England Never Had.
Like Clough, O'Neill was the people's choice according to opinion polls, only for the job to go to Eriksson's No 2, Steve McClaren. Before agreeing to a rare on-the-record chat with an old Clough confidant, the BBC's Pat Murphy, he had maintained a discreet silence about the England position. However, he soon opened up to admit that he had been interviewed by Brian Barwick and his cohorts from Soho Square.
O'Neill claimed to have found it "a fantastic experience" and harboured "no recriminations", yet he said he was now keen to return to management. The Northern Irishman initially resigned as manager of Celtic 13 months ago to look after his sick wife, Geraldine.
Clough remarked in his autobiography that O'Neill the player was "a bit of a smart-arse". The former Leicester City manager's genial replies to Murphy's gentle promptings made it clear he has a diplomatic streak absent from his late mentor's DNA. Indeed, other than an aside about the flawed timing of the Eriksson succession stakes, the only person he came close to criticising was the green-sweatered legend himself.
"If Brian Clough, who had an ego the size of 15 houses, had enough humility to go for an interview for the England job, then the rest of us mortals should be able to subject ourselves to that," said O'Neill.
"It is one of the great jobs in football, and if it had been offered to me, I'd have been absolutely foolish to turn it down. But I didn't get the job, there are no recriminations and it's over.
"I think the interview went fine, though I'm not sure that interviews and me get along. Whether people on the other side of the table were impressed, unimpressed or had their own particular agenda, you can come up with all sorts of reasons. The fact is that when the dust settled, I wasn't the England manager."
O'Neill felt the protracted process of arriving at McClaren, via Luiz Felipe Scolari and rampant media speculation anointing Sam Allardyce, Alan Curbishley, Stuart Pearce and others, had been less than ideal. "In hindsight they would have come up with a quicker conclusion. Or, probably better, they would have waited until after the World Cup. Then you can have everyone you might want for the job in your sights. I think it would have solved an awful lot of problems."
Nearly 20 years passed before anyone from the FA conceded it may have erred in spurning Clough. Peter Swales, the former international committee chairman, confessed in 1995 that he gave "by far the best interview of all the candidates: confident, passionate, full of common sense and patriotic". As Swales remembered it, only the availability of Ron Greenwood, who was seen as the respectable choice after the machinations of Revie's reign, cost Ol' Big 'Ead his chance.
On hearing that, Clough's response was to insist the FA had bottled the opportunity "because they didn't want an England manager who was prepared to call the Italians cheating bastards". Contradicting himself in a manner befitting his complex character, he maintained Swales' fellow blazers should have realised he would have "curbed the language".
Clough added wistfully that international football would have allowed him to "revel in the relief from the daily grind of club management". Funnily enough, it is precisely such chores O'Neill craves. "My wife would want me to get back into football because I'm an absolute nuisance around the place," he told Murphy. "I've tended to go to matches for enjoyment's sake. I've now got past that and I want to get back into the unenjoyable side of it. It's such a fantastic game that to be on the periphery isn't enough."Reuse content