O'Neill seeks new talent in search for winning mix

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It has been a strange summer for Martin O'Neill. For a man who is consumed by football, he suddenly found his normal routine hijacked by life. Family, rather than new signings, became the only thing that the Celtic manager kept a watchful eye on.

The illness which had struck his wife, Geraldine, was not only serious enough to force the Northern Irishman to alter his priorities, but for the club to make the news public and then ask for an embargo on press inquiries. O'Neill cancelled his BBC television engagement as an analyst at Euro 2004 and then took a back seat when his players returned for pre-season training. He was not on the plane that took Celtic to the United States for a four-game tour, preferring to spend time with his wife.

The only time O'Neill was seen in public was when he turned up at Buckingham Palace to receive his OBE and was pictured with Geraldine and their two daughters. Speculation was rife that the workaholic O'Neill was about to step down from the Scottish champions after four successful years in charge. Equally fierce was the theory that his inactivity in finding a replacement for Henrik Larsson added up to neglect that would cost Celtic dear once the season started.

How quickly things change. When Celtic launch their pursuit of a fourth Scottish Premier League title in five seasons tomorrow, at home to Motherwell, O'Neill will be standing by the dug-out as usual, with a bottle of mineral water in one hand and the other gesturing furiously at something on the pitch that needs attending to.

So jealously does O'Neill guard his privacy, that no one has divulged the exact nature of his wife's illness. However, when he received a report from her doctor 12 days ago that the condition had improved, that was the green light for O'Neill to catch a transatlantic flight.

Celtic had lost their opening two games in the US, to Chelsea 4-2, and 5-1 to Liverpool, but the sight of the manager back in his usual place had a galvanising effect as Celtic defeated Manchester United and then tested AS Roma, even if O'Neill was wearing the unfamiliar matchday garb of suit and open-necked shirt. Last Wednesday, he was back in his usual tracksuit as he watched his new recruit, Henri Camara, score the winner on his debut against Newcastle United.

O'Neill barely touched on his own personal drama in the pre-match press conference. "I don't have a monopoly on bad times. Everyone has to go through these things," was all he would say. "I have had some good news and want to progress from there."

Celtic have not yet recovered from the departure of their talisman, Larsson, at the end of last season after seven golden years, but even the hint of a departure from O'Neill - for whatever worthy reasons - has had supporters transfixed.

Just like them, O'Neill kept expecting to see the familiar sight of Larsson's shaven head when his team played in the US. By the time Newcastle came to Parkhead, Camara had arrived on a season's loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers to supply pace to augment the strength of Chris Sutton and John Hartson.

"We have lost Henrik, a major player, and while we would want to try and replace him, that won't be easy," reflected O'Neill the following morning. "Camara is not a direct replacement. I have not given any thought about who will line up. My job is simply to look for a winning formula."

The draining north American tour - four games in eight days and flights to Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia and Toronto - saw teenagers Aiden McGeady and Ross Wallace establish their own claim for a place, regardless of which big names come into Parkhead - Middlesbrough playmaker Juninho is the latest to be linked - between now and 31 August, the deadline for the Champions' League .

"I just think an injection of fresh talent coming into the side would help us enormously," stated O'Neill. "I think those players who have been doing it for us for quite a number of years, generally would like a bit of help."

While Celtic won the League from Rangers last season by 17 points, O'Neill recognises that his rivals - who have brought in seven new players and offloaded 10 - will possess an initial drive that stems from their pride being damaged last time.

"I know there was a great desire last season from our players to regain the title, having lost it by a single goal the previous year," said O'Neill. "That was a driving force throughout the whole year. Rangers have been revitalised again. They have changed the team around considerably with new fresher people in. It is a new impetus for them again. Time flies so quickly now, that after you have won something you have got about a day to celebrate, then it becomes history."