O'Neill homes in for the long haul at Celtic'

Rangers have a great ability of winning games when not playing well, and we must get that spirit back here'
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The Independent Football

Football seems to reserve its richest ironies for occasions when no one is watching, a fact that Martin O'Neill learned as he stopped at a motorway service station near Warwick seven weeks ago. Barely 30 minutes earlier, the Northern Irishman had informed Leicester City of his intention to go to Celtic, and, as he filled up with petrol, O'Neill felt a tap on the shoulder and turned round to see Lou Macari grinning back at him.

Football seems to reserve its richest ironies for occasions when no one is watching, a fact that Martin O'Neill learned as he stopped at a motorway service station near Warwick seven weeks ago. Barely 30 minutes earlier, the Northern Irishman had informed Leicester City of his intention to go to Celtic, and, as he filled up with petrol, O'Neill felt a tap on the shoulder and turned round to see Lou Macari grinning back at him.

Two generations of Celtic manager collided, briefly, on the forecourt. O'Neill did not reveal the nature of Macari's advice when he related the anecdote on Friday, but it is unlikely to have been positive. The former Celtic and Manchester United player spent just eight months at Parkhead before being sacked in June 1994.

Macari's managerial career was burned out by the costly court case he pursued against Celtic for unfair dismissal. "Lucky Lou", the man who loved to gamble, lost and these days receives greater recognition for his radio analyst role.

Ironically, one of the reasons given in court by Celtic for Macari's sacking was that he refused to give up his home in Staffordshire and only rented a place in Scotland. Given that O'Neill will become the seventh manager in nine years to try to end Rangers' hegemony in the Scottish Premier League, which starts next weekend, perhaps Macari's decision ought now to be viewed as prudent rather than obstinate.

A "For Sale" sign is at present planted in the lawn of the property in the Glasgow suburb occupied by John Barnesuntil his sacking in February. No wonder O'Neill invoked typical, Irish gallows humour by saying: "Some people have suggested I rent a flat out by Glasgow airport."

O'Neill, however, intends being around for the long haul. No matter that Rangers won their 11th title in 12 years a few months ago by a record margin of 21 points over their broken Old Firm rivals. Or that his counterpart across the city, Dick Advocaat, has spent the summer strengthening his already impregnable side with six new players.

Rather neatly for a man who is also one of the BBC's football analysts, O'Neill will begin his public scrutiny under the glare of cameras at Tannadice Stadium next Sunday. Celtic travel to meet Dundee United, where an early-season defeat a year ago began to unpick Barnes' credentials.

His successor, though, is not perturbed. "I don't want to make false promises about what we will do," O'Neill reflected. "I simply want us to get off to a good start to the season. But I know managers are held hostage by results."

O'Neill, who has filled the void left by the top scorer Mark Viduka's departure to Leeds in a straight £6m swap for Chelsea's Chris Sutton, has another £15m to spend. Some of it may go on Neil Lennon, the gritty midfielder he left behind at Filbert Street. O'Neill confirmed on Friday that he has made a £6.5m bid for Lennon but is unlikely to pay the £10m mentioned by his old club.

"I bought Neil from Crewe and he's a fine player, but I have made what I consider to be a fair offer," stressed O'Neill. "However, I have a number of players that I want and I must stay within my budget. So I am looking at other alternatives."

That horizon includes the squad he has inherited. Much has been made of the 27-goal Viduka's exit, but Celtic have possessed the Scottish Premier League's top scorer in four of the last five seasons - Viduka, Henrik Larsson, Jorge Cadete and Pierre van Hooijdonk - yet the only season the top marksman did not come from Parkhead, 1997-98, was the one where they achieved their solitary title.

"A lot of people tend to get distracted with big names," said the Celtic midfielder Jackie McNamara last week. "Paolo Di Canio was an idol of the fans in the season he was here, and I have never played with a more dedicated or gifted professional. But the truth is that we worked harder as a team before he arrived, when we lost only one league game in 1995-96, and then after Paolo and Pierre van Hooijdonk left, when we won the title in 1998."

O'Neil believes he can summon more out of the mosaic of players left by his series of predecessors. "I am in no hurry to get people to leave this football club," he said. "I would have preferred Mark Viduka to stay, but I only spoke to him on the phone in Australia and he said that nothing I could say could change his mind. Only once I heard that did I search for areplacement.

"No one likes star players more than me. Sure, we had a strong team at Leicester but we had one or two players within that framework who could turn the game. Here, I have Henrik Larsson who is in that mould - it's good to see in Euro 2000 that he is back to form after that bad injury - and Eyal Berkovic isanother. However, I want my individuals to contribute when they don't have the ball. Rangers have the great ability of winning games when not playing well, and Celtic have to get that spirit back."

O'Neill believes there is much he can learn from his rival Advocaat. "Dick has got a head start on me. He knows this league inside out and used that knowledge to sign Kenny Miller from Hibs, who I had glowing reports about at Leicester but I didn't buy him as I hadn't seen him myself.

"Rangers did not get 21 points clear of Celtic by accident, and they did not do it overnight. They are by far the strongest team in the Premier League and were unlucky not to go further in the Champions' League, and are getting better. They have quality internationals who would grace any major club in Europe. Rangers have, numerically and quality wise, a far better squad than Celtic. Dick Advocaat realised last year that the early-season schedule means you need a huge squad to cope with domestic and European commitments. Chelsea were behind Leicester early last season but it was not for a lack of quality. They might have taken their eye off the ball in the Premiership but that is not surprising when you considerthat because of the Champions' League they ended up playing 18 more games than Liverpool."

But neither that knowledge, nor Macari's experience, scares O'Neill. "I would have come here even if I did not have a penny to spend," he declared.

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