Why O'Neil would never cross the divide

South Coast derby: Yo-yo midfielder determined to stay and become a yeoman in Portsmouth's post-Redknapp era
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Even by the crazy standards of football, it's still a little unusual to hear a 21-year-old declare he is the longest-serving player at a Premiership club. But then this is Ports-mouth. "I've been here eight years, five as a pro, and no one has been here longer," says Gary O'Neil. "I guess that just shows how much has changed." It has, indeed, been a dizzying rise, and the young midfielder has achieved much simply to keep his balance.

Even by the crazy standards of football, it's still a little unusual to hear a 21-year-old declare he is the longest-serving player at a Premiership club. But then this is Ports-mouth. "I've been here eight years, five as a pro, and no one has been here longer," says Gary O'Neil. "I guess that just shows how much has changed." It has, indeed, been a dizzying rise, and the young midfielder has achieved much simply to keep his balance.

"There are so many people who were here when I started who have left or been kicked out," he says. "I'm glad I've just hung in there." At times it has felt just like that. After all, when O'Neil signed as a trainee in 1999, Portsmouth were nothing more than a club scrambling, season after season, against relegation to football's third tier.

And then came Harry Redknapp - and the investment of the chairman, Milan Mandaric. "We were struggling in the [then] First Division and Harry brought in maybe 10 or 11 new players and completely changed the team," O'Neil recalls. "We went from being down there to the best. We were going away and winning 5-2 and 5-1 - I'd never been in a team like that before."

Even now O'Neil finds the speed of it all bewildering. "When Harry came in he said, 'I'm going to finish in the top six this year. Anyone who doesn't want to come with me can leave now'," O'Neil says. "And I thought, 'Well, he can say that but I'm sure it's not as easy as that'. And after the first four or five weeks we were top and I was thinking, 'Surely we can't just do this?', and we stayed there for the rest of the season."

The downside was that, suddenly, O'Neil was fighting for his place. But he was - is - young and was prepared. "Paul Merson came in and it was tough," he says. "I was the first back-up in midfield, and so if anyone got injured I filled in. So I was just a squad player, trying to keep things rolling."

They gathered pace. Portsmouth ran away with the title and O'Neil managed, despite the competition, 30-plus appearances. The reviews, too, were good. But the Premiership was a different proposition. A whole new ball game. And Redknapp assembled a whole new squad. O'Neil, despite his undoubted, precocious promise, slipped further down the pecking order. He worked his way through England's Under-19s, Under-20sand cap- tained the Under-21s, but found his way into Portsmouth's side harder to navigate.

"After a while you do get frustrated and think, 'I'm sure I'm good enough to play here, I just need that chance'," O'Neil admits. "But at the same time Harry had a job to do in keeping the club in the Premier League, and he did a great job. Maybe I needed three of four games to get into it but he couldn't give me those games. He needed results straight away, so I can understand why he didn't play me. I hold no grudges."

Grudges. There has been much talk of those ever since Redknapp departed Fratton Park only to turn up down the road at Southampton. And now, of course, the rivals meet on Saturday in the FA Cup. O'Neil, with the longevity of being at Portsmouth since he was 13, when he was picked up by the then manager Terry Fenwick after playing in the same Sunday team in Bromley, Kent, as Fenwick's son, is uniquely placed to comment.

Indeed, O'Neil makes quite an amazing statement. "I believe that some of the fans would rather go down than not beat Southampton," he says. "But that's obviously not the case with the club itself. We know that staying in the Premier League is far more important."

That, he says, sums up the rivalry. Being so close, and despite being a Londoner, O'Neil would find it hard to do what his former team-mate Nigel Quashie did and follow Redknapp to St Mary's. "In a normal line of work, for example if another newspaper offered you more money to go and work for them, and it's going to change your life, then it's hard to turn it down, isn't it?" O'Neil reasons. "But I guess it's different when you have 20,000 people coming to every game to support you. I know how they feel about Southampton, and probably because I've been here such a long time it would be very difficult for me. I can't imagine it happening."

Not that he was surprised by Redknapp's move. "We knew he lived down the road and he's happy living there, so if there's a job, then why not?" O'Neil says. "It's ideal for him really, and he's got another fight on his hands to keep them in the League." Having such an affinity with Pompey fans, would he like to see Southampton relegated? "Erm, I've got no feelings for them either way," O'Neil says. "But if they take one of the relegation spots that's fine by me. There are three teams in there and one of them is not us. Every week you want the bottom teams to lose, obviously, especially if you have gone through a sticky time. You don't want them closing the gap."

But should the worst happen, and Portsmouth went down, he would want to remain. "I've always said I can see myself spending my whole career here," O'Neil says. "It's a great club and I've got no reason to move on unless I'm not good enough. After all, I'm not an established Premiership player yet. I've only played 10 games so if Portsmouth dropped out, I'm willing to do so with them. I'm used to playing in the First Division and I've got nothing against being a top First Division player for a few years."

Even if it harms his England ambitions? "If you want to get into the full squad then obviously you have to be in the Premier League," he says. " But that is some way off for me yet." Suddenly, however, he is on the right path.

O'Neil, unwittingly, became part of the tension that surfaced between Mandaric and Redknapp. The former wanted the latter to use the younger players. Instead O'Neil suffered an ankle injury, in December 2003, against yesterday's opponents, Chelsea, was ruled out for four months and failed to make a start for another five. He had loan spells at Walsall and Cardiff City - he insisted on going to help rebuild his confidence, saying, "I needed to prove I could do it again" - and made such an impression that the latter were desperate to buy him.

Four other Championship clubs also came in but Portsmouth held out. And, interestingly, the first thing the new manager, Velimir Zajec, did when he took charge, away to Bolton Wanderers, was to pick O'Neil. He has stayed there ever since, and with Quashie gone and Amdy Faye wanting to leave, his importance has increased.

"Obviously, I've broken in a few times before and never managed to sustain my place," O'Neil says. "You never know whether you are going to be good enough for the Premier League. But, when you don't play for a while, you do start doubting. Maybe, before, I wasn't ready. But I certainly hold no grudges - although I'm also glad that I've got my chance now."

BRIEF HISTORY OF TWO FEET IN BOTH CAMPS

Mick Channon

Made 511 appearances for Saints (1965-77 and 1979-82), and 40 for Pompey (1985-86). Southampton's all-time leading scorer (185 goals), scored a hat-trick against Pompey in 1975.

Ron Davies

Pulled on Southampton's shirt 240 times (1966-73). Played 69 games for Pompey (1973-75). Scored all Saints' goals in a 4-1 win at Old Trafford in 1969; Sir Matt Busby called him the best striker in the world.

Bobby Stokes

Made 216 Southampton appearances (1968-77), 29 for Pompey (1977-78). Scored the winner in Saints' FA Cup final win over Man United in 1976. Died of heart failure in May 1995, aged 43.

Barry Horne

Had 79 games for Portsmouth (1987-89) and joined Saints for £650,000 in March 1989, making 112 appearances.

Nigel Quashie

Played 154 times for Pompey (2000-05) before joining Saints for £2.1m. Injury stopped Quashie making his Saints debut yesterday.

Harry Redknapp

Had 32 months and 116 games managing Portsmouth, taking them to Premiership, before joining Southampton in late 2004.

Alan Ball

Twice managed Pompey (1984-89, 1997-99). Saints manager I994-95.

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