O'Neill still driven by the Stein dream

Uefa Cup final: Celtic's giant of the past has dwarfed most of his successors but the current heir is living up to the legend
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Sleep will be hard for Martin O'Neill to come by over the next few days. Yet if the Celtic manager's midnight wrestle with his thoughts pays off, then the citizens of Seville can kiss goodbye to an early bedtime on Wednesday night.

Almost three years ago, O'Neill took over at Parkhead and promised to "pursue a dream". The loquacious Northern Irishman has succeeded so well that he will have 50,000 dreamers for company in the Spanish city. Such has been the rush to be at the Uefa Cup final that even though their supporters will outnumber Porto's in the Estadio Olimpico, as many as 20,000 Scots will have travelled without a ticket, just to be in the city for the club's first European final in 33 years.

The ticket fever which has gripped Glasgow has been astonishing. The going price on the internet is around £1,000, and even celebrity fans are having to get in line. Rod Stewart has chartered his own jet to fly in from the United States, while Billy Connolly is coming from Australia. Supporters who have lasted on the monochrome memories of watching on television as Celtic became the first British club to win the European Cup in 1967, by defeating Internazionale, now hope that Seville will become synonymous for their generation, just as Lisbon was for their fathers.

O'Neill vividly recalls being able to touch that celebrated piece of silverware when the legendary Jock Stein brought the trophy with him that summer on a tour of Celtic supporters' clubs in Northern Ireland. He was just 14 then, but now his time has arrived to hold Celtic's destiny in his hands.

When O'Neill took over in June 2000, he was surrounded by the wreckage of the John Barnes-Kenny Dalglish era. The job had claimed seven victims in nine years, yet he admitted it had an inescapable attraction for him because of his boyhood support of the club. In pursuing his dream, he has raised the reputation of one of Europe's biggest clubs. Two successive Scottish Premier League championships, with perhaps a third around the corner, have been followed by a Uefa Cup run that has seen Blackburn Rovers, Celta Vigo, VfB Stuttgart, Liverpool and Boavista brushed aside.

For those who have watched this most animated of men when he is in the dugout, it is no surprise that relaxation does not come easily. Stein, too, could rarely sleep. "You go through the game in your mind, go through the gameplan and give the opposition some consideration – and your own team a lot, lot more," he said wrly. "You plan as best as you can and hope that when you wake up the next morning that plan is still the same."

Celtic's retreat in Jerez will be an oasis of calm compared to the party building up among the supporters in Seville, though O'Neill feels his players will not be burdened by insomnia as he is. "In their dreams they will all want to have played the games of their lives. For some of the older players, their experiences in Europe recently will stand them in good stead.

"They've gone into matches this season away from home with something to prove and ties in the balance, so this shouldn't be that much different in terms of preparation. They will all be feeling anxious, excited and apprehensive at the same time, and so will I. And 50,000 others as well." It is not fear of Porto – despite their 4-1 hammering of Lazio in the semi-final – which has brought this restlessness. It is the longing to re-establish Celtic's European reputation.

Many of those players, such as Henrik Larsson, who has scored 10 times en route to the final, and Paul Lambert, who won the Champions' League with Borussia Dortmund in 1997, are the wrong side of 30. This could be their defining moment as a team, a point that O'Neill hammered home in the visitors' dressing room at Anfield with his pre-match speech.

"Porto are technically very gifted," reflected O'Neill. "But the truth is, I don't think Liverpool would fear them. That doesn't mean that Porto couldn't beat Liverpool on any given day. Indeed, Celta Vigo are currently just behind Real Madrid in the Spanish League, yet we knocked them out too."

O'Neill has plenty of first-hand knowledge about the side who have just run away with the Portuguese title. Last season the sides met in the Champions' League group phase, with Celtic winning 1-0 at Parkhead but losing 3-0 in Oporto. "That was not a disgrace," O'Neill said. "We were well beaten and people will ask if you learn lessons from that. You try, but something else might crop up. Listen, I am really happy just to be in the final."

Celtic's history, though, demands more than just taking part. When Stein made it into the dressing room after the 1967 European Cup final, his first well-wisher was Bill Shankly. The Liverpool manager gripped his fellow miner and declared: "Jock, you're immortal!"

O'Neill secretly hopes that his team contribute to an occasion that will be remembered in different parts of Europe. "I would love it to be 5-4, as long as we got the five," he smiled. "We don't want it to be like the semi with Boavista. That was our poorest European performance. Now is an opportunity to throw off the shackles. We beat Juventus 4-3 last season in a real epic. Winning is very important, but I'd love people to say: 'Wait a minute, this team can play a bit'."

O'Neill has insight to offer, but he will not have to repeat what happened to him in 1979, when Brian Clough told him on the eve of the European Cup final that he would not play. It seemed he would have to do the same to John Hartson, but the Welshman's back injury has ruled him out. O'Neill's assistant, John Robertson, can offer a winning goal for Nottingham Forest against Hamburg as evidence of the capriciousness of cup finals.

"Everyone sets out thinking it's going to be their evening, their final, they will be the one who turns the game, but it doesn't always happen," said O'Neill. "My players believe they can make it happen."

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