Cloughie's clone joins Stein in Celtic lore

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The Independent Football

When the final whistle sounded at Hampden yesterday, Martin O'Neill turned his back to the pitch and, somewhat sheepishly, raised his right arm to acknowledge the adulation pouring down in his direction from three-quarters of Scotland's national Stadium. He hugged his assistants, John Robertson and Steve Walford, and offered his commiserations to Gordon Chisholm, the manager of Dundee United. Then, after not a little persuading on the part of his players, the departing Celtic manager was prevailed upon to climb the steps of the main stand to collect the Scottish Cup.

When the final whistle sounded at Hampden yesterday, Martin O'Neill turned his back to the pitch and, somewhat sheepishly, raised his right arm to acknowledge the adulation pouring down in his direction from three-quarters of Scotland's national Stadium. He hugged his assistants, John Robertson and Steve Walford, and offered his commiserations to Gordon Chisholm, the manager of Dundee United. Then, after not a little persuading on the part of his players, the departing Celtic manager was prevailed upon to climb the steps of the main stand to collect the Scottish Cup.

So there you had it: a grand old trophy being hoisted high by one of the grandest managers of the grand old team. "I thought it was a wee bit embarrassing," O'Neill confessed later. "The players did the work. They should have gone up first." It was the end of an era that only Jock Stein has truly eclipsed in terms of managerial impact in the 117-year history of Celtic. In his 13 years as manager, Stein turned the trophy room at Celtic Park into the Aladdin's Cave of Glasgow's East End. His haul of 25 trophies included 10 Scottish championships and one European Cup. O'Neill's five years have yielded seven trophies: three Scottish championships, three Scottish Cups and one League Cup. He would have won five titles out of five had it not been for two unlikely twists on the final day of the Scottish Premier League season.

As well as loosening Rangers' long-time domestic stranglehold, O'Neill has also succeeded in putting the Bhoys back on the European map. It took a goal five minutes from the end of extra-time for a Porto side managed by one Jose Mourinho to beat Celtic in the 2003 Uefa Cup final in Seville. At the quarter-final stage that year O'Neill's team disposed of a Liverpool side featuring nine of the Anfield heroes who performed their Lazarus feat in last Wednesday night's European Cup final in Istanbul.

With greater financial backing, O'Neill would undoubtedly have made a more marked impression on Europe's premier cup competition. In his time at Celtic, however, he has succeeded in maximising the fairly limited potential he has had at his disposal - as he did as manager of Wycombe and Leicester. It will be a fortunate club indeed who secure his services if he decides to resume his managerial career. In the meantime, the football world can only congratulate him on a job well done in Glasgow and wish him and his sick wife, Geraldine, all the best for the future.

It was always going to be an emotional occasion yesterday, which just happened to be the 25th anniversary of Nottingham Forest's second European Cup win. O'Neill played a starring role in midfield in the Brian Clough team that beat Hamburg back in 1980 and there have been glimpses of his old City Ground boss in O'Neill the manager - not least his ability to get the absolute best out of modest players. Clough called him "Squire", because of his university degree, and described him in his autobiography as "a bit of a smart-arse". It takes one to appreciate one, clearly.

Whether by accident or design, O'Neill has become something of a mirror image of his old manager at pitch-side, with his sweatshirt and upturned rugby jersey collar. Yesterday he chose a cup final day suit, looking like the barrister he might have become with his law degree from Queen's University. The man who queued to see the Yorkshire Ripper trial and who has inspected the Grassy Knoll in Dallas still likes to debate the finer points of the law. He raced to the touchline on countless occasions to remonstrate with the referee and the linesmen - earning a stern rebuke from the fourth official at one point.

In truth, his team's inability to finish off their opponents gave him greater cause for frustration. He punched the air in celebration when Alan Thompson scored but his facial muscles twitched with anxiety as his players contrived to spurn a succession of clear chances. Chris Sutton was the chief culprit, with his penalty miss, closely followed by Craig Bellamy, then Stilian Petrov, John Hartson, and Thompson.

At the final whistle, though, it was win number 214 for O'Neill in his 282nd and final match as Celtic manager. "Well, that's it," he said, rising to leave the interview room afterwards. "It's up to Gordon to pick up the cudgels now."

The man from Kilrea will not be an easy act to follow, as Gordon Strachan is surely destined to discover.

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