O'Neill era ends as Strachan takes over

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The Independent Football

"There are things I want to do," said Martin O'Neill yesterday, as he confirmed he was stepping down as the manager of Celtic after five trophy-laden years in which he established himself as the club's second most successful manager ever, behind only the late, great Jock Stein.

"There are things I want to do," said Martin O'Neill yesterday, as he confirmed he was stepping down as the manager of Celtic after five trophy-laden years in which he established himself as the club's second most successful manager ever, behind only the late, great Jock Stein.

Those particular words were not in relation to his immediate and painfully uncertain future, a period when his wife, Geraldine, who is seriously ill with cancer, will take precedence above all else.

Geraldine's health is the sole reason for O'Neill's departure from Celtic Park.

The words came, instead, when he was asked whether he envisages a return to football. "I would definitely like to get back into management, no doubt about it," O'Neill, 53, replied. "But when that is I wouldn't be sure - that will obviously depend on other aspects."

Already, inevitably, there is speculation that when he is ready to think again about matters as relatively trivial as football, his thoughts will turn to Manchester United. Indeed the bookmakers have already decided he is an odds-on bet to make his managerial return, whenever that may be, at Old Trafford.

Even more certain that that, according to the bookies, is that O'Neill's final competitive game in charge of Celtic, Saturday's Scottish FA Cup final against Dundee United, will end in triumph.

As for his successor, all bets are off. Celtic yesterday confirmed that Gordon Strachan will take over, on a 12-month rolling contract, from next Wednesday.

Strachan's management experience to date comprises five years at Coventry City and two-and-a-half years at Southampton, with whom he parted company in February last year.

Strachan was chosen for the Celtic job after a consultation process that involved Celtic's chief executive, Peter Lawwell, and O'Neill among others. "Did I identify him?" quipped O'Neill yesterday. "He was too small, I couldn't see him.

"I spoke to him and he was interested to hear my own thoughts but he has his own views on it and his own way of doing things... He will do wonderfully well and the torch will pass to him."

That torch has rarely been carried by anyone as popular with Celtic's fans as O'Neill, who arrived with excellent credentials and enhanced them.

If the job he did at Leicester City between 1995 and 2000 seems more remarkable with every passing year - he guided them to the Premiership, established them there, and won the League Cup, twice - then Celtic are no less grateful that he re-established them as serious rivals, and often superiors to Rangers, after more than a decade of Ibrox dominance.

Celtic won the domestic treble in O'Neill's first season, retained the SPL title in 2002, lost it by a single goal to Rangers in 2003, won it back last year (as part of a Double) and only ceded it again in the final moments of this season.

Arguably O'Neill's greatest achievement - and he admitted yesterday that it was certainly his most memorable - was to steer Celtic to the 2003 Uefa Cup final, following their first European campaign to last beyond Christmas for 23 years. Some 80,000 Celtic fans made the pilgrimage to the game, which ended in a 3-2 extra-time defeat to Jose Mourinho's Porto. "The best [memory] would be driving into the stadium in Seville," O'Neill recalled.

"It was a very, very hot late afternoon. I remember seeing a sea of green-and-white shirts and that was amazing and I helped by getting us there.

"People have come up to me since and said that it was the greatest day of their lives. The older people think that [the European Cup win of 1967 over Internazionale in] Lisbon will never be surpassed but for the newer generation that was their best night."

O'Neill's decision to leave was cemented in his own mind only in recent weeks following biopsy tests that indicated his wife's illness had become more serious.

"She wouldn't like me to go into too much detail," he said. "We had some good news at the back end of last year and she is not too clever at the minute.

"I don't have a monopoly of bad times but it is the correct thing to do. She has stood with me for quite some time so this is the right thing."

On a lighter note, O'Neill retained enough of his trademark dry humour to jest that he will leave Celtic in better shape than some of the journalists who cover them. "Five years ago we were in a pre-qualifying game with a Luxembourg side for the Uefa Cup," he said. "We have moved on from there, and I think we have re-established Celtic as a driving force."

Saturday's meeting with Dundee United marks the 25th anniversary since O'Neill, as a Nottingham Forest player, won his one and only European Cup to date.

Don't bet against it being his last. This weekend's final may be au revoir, but for a man as driven as O'Neill, it is unlikely to be goodbye.

The O'Neill Years: From Clough's apprentice to the new Stein

* 1952 Born Kilrea, Northern Ireland, 1 March.

* 1971 Makes international debut against the USSR. Joins Nottingham Forest in October.

* 1978 Forest, under Brian Clough, win the First Division.

* 1980 Wins European Cup with Forest. Leaves a year later.

* 1990 Named manager of non-League Wycombe. They are in the Second Division by the time he leaves.

* 1995 Becomes manager of Norwich. Moves to Leicester in December. Win promotion to the Premiership through the play-offs.

* 1997 Leicester win Coca-Cola Cup, followed by Worthington Cup in 2000.

* 2000 1 June Joins Celtic. In first year they win Treble and retain title in 2002.

* 2003 Beaten 3-2 by Porto in Uefa Cup final. Lose SPL title to Rangers.

* 2004 Do the Double again.

* 2005 22 MayLose title to Rangers on final day of season. 25 May O'Neill to step down after Cup final.

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