Gary O'Neil: Game for a laugh

He is Pompey's youngest first-teamer yet somehow is the club captain, has needed a haircut all season but only just got it and finds himself leading a rejuvenated team but one given the stiffest of challenges by the FA Cup draw. You have to smile, O'Neil tells Jason Burt
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Gary O'Neil admits he didn't really know what it took to be a "top" footballer until this season. It was then that he got to train and play with Sol Campbell, David James and Andrew Cole. Campbell, in particular, has opened the Portsmouth midfielder's eyes. "I look at him and see that every day he gives 100 per cent," O'Neil says. "He never has a bad day; he never switches off. He's the same in every session and he's changed the way I train.

"Sometimes, before, if I was a bit tired or thought, 'There's a big game coming up' and I'd maybe say to myself, 'I won't do too much today, I'll save myself for the weekend'. But looking at Sol, and he's been at the top for so many years, I see what it takes and so that's the way I want to do it. He's definitely shown me the way and shown me how hard I have to work. I've upped it."

And so have Portsmouth. Sixth place in the Premiership is astonishing for a club that performed "the Great Escape" last season. O'Neil still puffs out his cheeks at that one but, to be fair, he has seen it all on the South Coast. Aged just 23, and having been at the club since he was 13, surviving four owners, 10 managers and many team-mates, literally in the hundreds, O'Neil, seven years a professional, is able to remark that: "I'm the longest-serving - and still the youngest - first-team player."

In the absence of the injured Dejan Stefanovic he is also the captain. "It's a strange one," he says of that honour. "But I'm enjoying it." That is abundantly clear. Indeed, O'Neil has the appearance of someone who has simply stepped up to the plate and taken on every challenge that has been set before him.

Take the captaincy issue. "When Dejan got injured I just thought, 'Harry [Redknapp, the manager] will give it to Sol this time', especially as he is a centre-half. But when he said, 'Gary's going to lead us out today', I just tried hard to keep the smile off my face. It's been the biggest honour in my career to lead out such a talented team, one that is doing so well in the Premier League. To captain, at the moment, such a team is unbelievable."

His approach is simple. "My captaincy is more leading by example," O'Neil says. "When you have people like Sol Campbell and David James, even though I'm captain I'm more than happy to listen. There's no shouting. What are we going to get from me shouting at either of those two? I just try to give everything. It's possibly why I was given the armband."

O'Neil is expected to resume the captaincy today. Portsmouth face Manchester United in the fourth round of the FA Cup and the midfielder is back from the first suspension of his career. The ban was all the more irritating as O'Neil watched another former Arsenal player, Lauren, complete an accomplished debut in his position of right midfield. "Naturally you think, 'Am I going to get back in?'" O'Neil admits. "But you honestly can't worry about that. You just have to do what you can."

That has always been O'Neil's credo. After all, this is a player, born in south London, who was dismissed in that cliché of being "too small" when he was a kid training at West Ham United and believed himself that he wasn't "doing enough to make it as a footballer. I was struggling."

O'Neil then pitched up at Portsmouth, because he played Sunday League football in Bromley, Kent, with the son of the then manager Terry Fenwick, and found that his mentor, the youth team coach Sean North, was 5ft 1in tall. Size obviously didn't matter. "He taught me how to play." O'Neil says. "He gave me the confidence, he told me I was good enough."

If North's role pointed O'Neil in the right direction, then it was undoubtedly Redknapp who took him to the level he is at now. But it was not always like that. Indeed, this interview is conducted almost two years to the day that I last spoke to O'Neil. Then Portsmouth were also preparing for an FA Cup tie - but it was against their nearest and bitterest rivals Southampton, with Redknapp having decamped along the coast following his bust-up with Portsmouth's former owner Milan Mandaric.

O'Neil gave what was the only interview before that game and amid the acrimony and bitterness from others he was a lucid and sane individual, but also one who was aware that losing to Southampton would be a terrible afternoon for Portsmouth. They did lose - but did not follow their neighbours into relegation.

Maybe they would have done without the platform that Redknapp had built and, certainly, before his return in December 2005 Portsmouth were heading in only one direction. "When he came back," O'Neil says, "people would ask, 'Do you think you'll get relegated or do you have a chance?' But we were eight, nine points adrift. We were pretty much dead and buried. I remember one week we lost and that day I thought, 'This is going to be a real struggle now'."

There were other questions, aimed directly at O'Neil. "People were also saying to me, 'You were out of favour last time [Redknapp was manager] and since he left you played every game and now he's coming back - so how do you feel?' And I was saying, 'If it's best for the club, then it's best for the club'. We certainly wouldn't have stayed up without him. When he came back I just thought, 'I need to impress him and make sure I'm in that group that he wants to take forward'. I managed to do that."

Indeed he did. Upon his return Redknapp made a simple decision. He gathered around him the players he knew and trusted - Linvoy Primus, Matthew Taylor, Stefanovic and O'Neil - from his previous spell. "He spoke to us and asked us about the other players and ended up using the ones who were here before as a way of getting us out of trouble." Except O'Neil says he was not the same player Redknapp had left behind. "I'd developed quite a bit," O'Neil says. "I'd played maybe 30 Premier League games and felt like a different player."

The message from Redknapp was simple. "He just said, 'Look, we need some points here, the January transfer window doesn't open for another month so we have to make sure that by the time it does we're still in with a chance. We were in a desperate situation and I don't think anyone else would have got us out of it."

Mandaric clearly agreed. "Obviously, there had been a falling out, I think, when Harry left in the first place so it was a brave move for Milan to say, 'I made a mistake, let's get him back', while, for Harry, he knew saving us would be his biggest managerial achievement," O'Neil says. The turning point was clear - the home win against Manchester City last March with two brilliant goals, the winner in injury time, by Pedro Mendes, one of Redknapp's January recruits. "It had taken a while for some of the new players to settle and to get match-fit and there were a few people saying, 'It's not worked out', but it did. That game was unbelievable."

Mendes had also played - and won - a European Cup final. Portsmouth now have four more players who have graced that stage - Campbell, Djimi Traoré, Cole and Kanu. The arrival of the latter, another former Arsenal player, offers an intriguing insight into how Redknapp operates. After just three goals for West Bromwich Albion last season, it appeared no one really wanted the Nigerian striker during the summer. His impact at Fratton Park - with 10 goals before Christmas - has been amazing.

How does the manager bring about such transformations? "Man-management and giving you confidence is a big part," O'Neil says. "But I really think it's because Harry knows exactly how he wants his team to play - and then he brings in people to suit that. He knew he wanted to get balls into the box and a striker who could get hold of it and turn and bring people into the game, so he had a look around, saw who was about and thought, 'Kanu can do it'. He needed a striker who can go in behind - so we have Benji [Benjani Mwaruwari]. He finds the players to suit the style.

"In training Harry doesn't always get involved. He's watching, assessing and judging. Come Saturday he's always got ideas and there will be some to counteract Manchester United. He's very, very astute and the great thing is I don't believe he would ever resort to playing direct football. Harry loves people who can play and every team talk he says, 'We need to play lads, we need to pass the ball, there's no good going direct'."

It was, as ever, a busy summer last year. O'Neil got married - to Donna [the couple are expecting their first child at the end of May] - and Redknapp was active in the transfer market. O'Neil's contribution was recognised with a new five-year contract. "I can't see myself being anywhere else," he says. "I will be 28 at the end of it and have been here since I was 13. I guess that's unusual nowadays, but the club have been fantastic and the best way for me to repay that is to give everything I've got from now until the end of my career."

As Portsmouth progress, the competition for places will get all the more fierce. "But that's the way it should be," says O'Neil. "And I have been there before. When we got promoted from the Championship to the Premiership I thought, 'Right, I've really got to step up here, otherwise I'll get left behind'. It's the same now and the step we have made this season is far greater. To go from bottom four to top six is huge and if we are going to stay there we need people like myself and Matty Taylor, younger players who have been at the club, to improve and prove we can play with the new ones coming in."

Such have been the improvements that both he and Taylor have been talked about in terms of an England call-up. O'Neil has worked his way through all the national age groups, captaining the Under-21s. If he won a full cap he would be the first to come through Portsmouth's ranks since Mark Hateley in 1984.

"We're a million miles from where we were when I first joined this club and from when Harry first joined as well," O'Neil says. "Then we were fighting against relegation from Division One [now the Championship]. It really has been unbelievable." It' s also, he admits, unbelievable to think that if Portsmouth finish anywhere below their current League position it will be a huge disappointment. "If we wilt and finish, say, 10th it will be hard to take," O'Neil says. "But if you'd offered us 10th at the start of the season we would have accepted it. It shows how far we've come."

The success also means that this season the FA Cup has taken on more importance for the club, who have won the competition just once - in 1939, which meant they held the trophy throughout the Second World War. Last season they were knocked out by Liverpool at this stage and have progressed beyond the last 32 only once in nine seasons.

"Before there was only one aim and that was either getting into or staying in the Premier League," O'Neil says. "Now we're pretty much guaranteed our status and, by putting out a full-strength team against Wigan in the last round, Harry showed that we were going for the Cup. It was just a shame that we then got the hardest draw possible in the next round."

Old Trafford has not been a happy hunting ground for Portsmouth. They were beaten in the FA Cup in 2003, the year they got promoted, while the only Portsmouth player to have scored there in almost four years is O'Neil - with a 25-yard volley two years ago. "I've never really had a Cup run and I definitely feel it's something we lack. The nearest we've had was a League Cup quarter-final a couple of years ago, when we lost 3-0 to Watford, who were in the division below us," he says.

Nevertheless, Redknapp has plotted a Cup victory at Old Trafford before, of course. He was in charge of West Ham when they knocked United out 1-0 at the same stage of the competition in 2001 - with Paolo Di Canio's opportunist goal - and, although Portsmouth lost earlier this season in the League, they were weakened by injury. "Now we're virtually at full strength and we will give it a right go," O'Neil says.

Missing target leads to a five-month long series of bad-hair matchdays

Gary O'Neil rubs the nape of his newly shorn neck and recalls the bet he wishes he never made last August with fellow midfielder Sean Davis - that neither would have their hair cut until they scored a goal.

Having struck seven times last season O'Neil expected the bet to be won or lost fairly quickly - but had to wait until 13 January when his, to be honest, fortuitous 81st-minute goal earned a point at Bramall Lane against Sheffield United.

His celebrations - grabbing his long hair and manically pulling it back and forth - were picked up on.

"It was five months of frustrations let out in one minute," O'Neil says. "There will be no more crazy bets, ever again. In the end it was getting to us both."

Indeed, he allowed Davis also to have his hair cut even though he has yet to break his duck. "The bet went on that long that it was only fair that we got it cut so everyone could stop talking about it," O'Neil says. "Instead of opening up the paper on a Sunday morning and seeing '5/10 and still no goal' it will make a change. I'm calling it quits now."

O'Neil claims there were mitigating circumstances as to why it has taken him so long to score. "I've been deployed slightly differently this year," he says. "We've got Kanu up front and I feed balls into his feet. When I played wide last year I was encouraged to come inside and join in. This year I've had to leave the space a bit to get the ball into Kanu. I've stayed out to put crosses in, which is different, but I've also found it difficult to get into goal-scoring positions. But I could certainly do with getting a couple more goals."